A Matter of Serious Concern
Hill Roberts' Work in Russia
(Editor's note: Numerous mentions are made in his article to links and pictures documenting the charges made. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of the PDA devices, the links and picture can not be supplied. Please go to the Watchman site online to view the complete article with accompanying documentation).
A report on a missionary trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, was recently brought to my attention. It was written by brother Tom Couchman and detailed efforts in which he and brother Hill Roberts had taken part, and was posted on brother Roberts' web site. (To access the article, click here. If the "Enter Network Password box comes up, click cancel, and the article should still load. At the time this article was posted to Watchman Magazine, the mentioned article was still available on the Lord I Believe site). Note: Some of you may remember that brother Couchman circulated a response to the open letter which was sent to Florida College regarding its use of Hill Roberts in their lecture program ). Though somewhat dated (the trip took place Feb. 17-25, 2001), this report should be of interest to all who hold the cause of Christ in foreign lands near and dear. This is because it involves compromises that most of us will find hard to believe. Without further ado, let us notice a couple paragraphs from brother Couchman which tell of the brethren with whom he and brother Roberts worked while in Russia:
A number of American missionaries are working in this area. The Americans with whom Hill has had the most contact are Chuck Whittle and D'Anne Blume. Chuck has been in St. Petersburg for almost eleven years, D'Anne for almost seven. D'Anne teaches regular Bible studies with women throughout each week, and she was the person who organized our activities. D'Anne devotes most of her efforts to the church in Gatchina, about 30 miles south of St. Petersburg, and Chuck works with the Sverski church.
There are six congregations of Christians in the St. Petersburg area. In St. Petersburg itself are the Neva, Central and Narvskaya churches (names of Russian people and places are phonetically translated to English, so my spelling may not be "official"). The Neva church is essentially independent of American help. Paul and Virginia Kitsmiller work with the Narvskaya church, and Gary Workman with the Central church. The other three area congregations near but not in St. Petersburg are Gatchina and Sverski, already mentioned, and Lomonosov, where Joel and Yana Petty work. On this trip Hill and I visited Gatchina and Neva and met briefly on a couple of occasions with Joel Petty. (p. 2, my emph, sw)
Tom also mentions working with brother Igor Kravchenko (p. 11). Those of you who keep up with foreign work among brethren may not have heard the names we emphasize above. I admit that they were new to me. This is because these brethren are not from among us; they are from among our institutional brethren. Please read on as we document our findings.
"The Christians in the St. Petersburg Area"
The quote in the above heading is from Tom Couchman's report (p. 1). Let us begin acquainting ourselves with these brethren by noting churches involved in their support. Brother Whittle lists the following churches as having fellowship in his work:
The following churches participate substantially in supporting my work in the St. Petersburg region; Church of Christ, Natick, Massachusetts; Church of Christ, Grants, New Mexico; Tenth Street Church of Christ, Opelika, Alabama; and West End Church of Christ, Nashville, Tennessee. Additional support is received from churches in Cordele, Georgia and Milton, West Virgina and from individuals who want to participate. The Harpeth Hills Church of Christ in Brentwood, Tennessee has been a big assistance for Vita International. Other churches and groups supporting benevolence activities in the St. Petersburg region include Brentwood Oaks Church of Christ, Austin, Texas, Richland Hills Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas Berry's Chapel Church of Christ in Franklin, Tennessee, Healing Hands International, Nashville and Friends of Hurting Children Nashville. East European Mission (a printing house in Vienna, Austria, run by institutional brethren, sw) and World Bible translation Center have assisted considerably with Bibles and literature. The West Irvin Church of Christ in Tyler, Texas has helped us by organizing a camp for children for two summers now. (Mission Report of Charles Whittle, St. Petersburg, Russia, p. 2, my emph, sw, click here to access Mission Report).
Sound brethren who live in the various cities and towns listed by brother Whittle know where the above churches stand among churches of Christ. The other sources he lists, in addition to churches, should also raise some eyebrows. Sister D'Anne Blume "is fully funded under the oversight of the RHCC" (from the web site of Richland Hills Church of Christ, North Richland Hills, Texas. Note: This church lists among its "ministries" a "Community Enrichment Center" and "Grace Café" (click here to see page from the RHCC site). Gary Workman is supported by the Beltline Road church of Christ in Irving, Texas (click here to see the documentation at the Beltline church of Christ site). He is no stranger to many of us because of his writing and participation in the Dallas meeting years ago. The web site of the Brentwood Oaks Church of Christ in Austin, Texas, lists the following information on other brethren listed in brother Couchman's report:
Joel and Yana Petty, together with Igor and Rita Kravchenko, are missionaries in St. Petersburg, Russia. We support them and the work they do in several suburbs of St. Petersburg. They work to deepen the understanding of those who are already Christian. They provide leadership training for maturing believers. And they conduct Bible studies for those who desire to know the ways of God more clearly. (Click here to see the Brentwood page).
There is yet more information that helps to locate these brethren from a doctrinal standpoint. Brethren Petty and Whittle, along with sister Blume are all mentioned in a Oct. 1, 2002 article on the Christian Chronicle's web site (Click here to access article). Further, brother Petty's 21 May 2000 report appears on the Abilene Christian University web site (Click here to access report).
A further aid in identifying these brethren in St. Petersburg comes from looking at their work. What tasks are these brethren carrying out? Is it just evangelism? Please read on. Brother Whittle's June 22, 2002 report states right at the beginning,
This report will summarize the work of Charles Whittle and others in St. Petersburg, Russia and environs. The gospel of Jesus Christ has been preached. Seekers have been taught. The hungry have been fed. Students too poor to eat have been assisted. The grieving have been comforted and assisted financially. The ill have been assisted with medicines. Orphans have been visited and given vitamins. Poor children have been helped in school. (Whittle, ibid., p. 1, my emph, sw)
Brother Couchman mentions he and brother Roberts working with the church in Neva (pp. 10-11). We offer the following picture with its accompanying caption from the web site of the Tenth St. Church of Christ in Opelika, Alabama, to inform brethren of at least one function of the church in Neva:
CAPTION: The churches in the St. Petersburg region try to get together once each quarter for a joint worship service. The last was hosted by the Church of Christ on the Neva in St. Petersburg. People came by bus, train and metro from Siverskii, Gatchina, Lomonosov and the Narvskaya (St. P.) church. The service was in Russian and not interpreted except for my sermon. It was led by Russian men, principally of the Neva congregation. The last joint meeting ws in December in Lomonosov. The spirited singing is such a boost for all who attend. Some old standards and some distinctly new Russian songs are sung. We had a period of food and fellowship before the worship service. It was also a blessing to baptize three (from Siverskii and St. P.) on the way in for the service. (Charles Whittle, "St. Petersburg Russia Church Pictures," my emph, sw, click here to access page).
Brethren Roberts and Couchman worked in teaching evidences among our institutional brethren! If Tom's report was of a single trip, some might think that he and brother Roberts may have somehow been hoodwinked into working with institutional brethren and needed to be informed of their error. However, brother Couchman writes that this is brother Roberts' third visit to work with brethren there (p. 1). Hill's own web site says that his first trip there was in June of 1998, before his teaching in the 1999 Florida College Lectures (click here for documentation at the Lord I Believe site).
Some Important Questions
1. Can we neglect clear and present error in those to whom we preach? Over and over again in his report, brother Couchman emphasizes their work of teaching material having to do with evidences. Except for brother Couchman talking with sister Blume about a church buying flu vaccine for children, we read nothing of their dealing with the errors of institutionalism. It is hard to believe the brethren in St. Petersburg would have allowed Hill to come back had he dealt with their errors during his previous two trips there. Paul openly confronted error in churches with whom he worked (1 Cor. 1-15; Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Thes. 3:10). He instructed preachers to follow his example (1 Tim. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:24-26; 4:2; Titus 1:10-14). Do brethren Roberts and Couchman have a more educated opinion on this matter, as Hill does on the days of Gen. 1? It shocked me in doing research for this article to find the following information on brother Roberts' web site:
Other Apologetics Opportunities Afforded to Hill Heritage Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL (March) Two Apologetics classes taught to adult special studies class Total Attendance: ~400 (my emph. sw. Click here for report).
And we thought it alarming to learn that brother Roberts had worked with institutional brethren!
2. Has brother Couchman changed his convictions with regards to unity and work of the church? Hopefully, readers will remember the open letter which was circulated in response to Florida College's use of brother Roberts on their lecture program and their defense of having unity with such brethren (Watchman Magazine, July 2000, Click here to read open letter). Shortly thereafter, as we noted in our introduction to this article, brother Couchman posted his A Response to "The Creation Account & Florida College" in Watchman Magazine and Ferrell Jenkins' website ( July, 2000, Click here to view PDF file of Couchman's article). Please notice the following lines from his response:
"&ldots;But I cannot see why anyone who values unity would participate in a discussion initiated for the express purpose of dividing brethren over an issue which has nothing to do with obedience to the gospel message, the imitation of Christ or the ministry of the New Testament church (A Response to "The Creation Account & Florida College," p. 1, my emph, sw).
Tom later refers to this "ministry" as "the work of the church" (p. 5). We forego responding to brother Tom's unkind judging of the motives of brethren who signed the open letter. We simply note here that his above-quoted words imply some conviction on his part with regards to the work of the church. In light of this, would the "ministry" or "work of the church" include fellowship meals such as the one "hosted by the Church of Christ on the Neva in St. Petersburg?" (above picture caption) Let us remember, he and brother Roberts worked with that church. Does it include ministering to the physical needs of non-Christians (1 Cor. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 8-9)? Does it include such "ministries" as those common among churches of Christ and sects who have accepted the social gospel? Brother Couchman's work among the institutional brethren in St. Petersburg should cause brethren to go back and take another look at his response to the open letter. (Please note the above sites where his response can be found.)
3. Is the leaven of such compromise spreading among conservative brethren? In a December, 1998 article in Watchman Magazine, this writer detailed similar compromises with institutional brethren on the part of brother Glenn Jones who works in Kiel, Germany (Click here for the Watchman article). Brother Jones has long practiced open fellowship with institutional brethren in his work in Europe. The Embry Hills church in Atlanta, Georgia, where Sewell Hall has worked, has long supported Glenn in his work in spite of brother Hall's sure knowledge of where Glenn stands on this matter. (Relayed by this writer in personal correspondence with Sewell, 10/20/92 and by way of Sewell reading the above noted Watchman article about Glenn before it was published.) Has the message that their influence and example so clearly sends been heard by other brethren? Are institutional brethren somehow acceptable when they leave the United States? Are the practices of institutional brethren only sinful when done within the borders of our country (Eph. 4:11-12)?
4. Is institutionalism another issue in which we can have unity-in-diversity? None can deny that, in the last 13 years, we have seen the realm in which brethren can have unity slowly enlarging in the minds of some brethren. This began with brother Ed Harrell's formal defense of unity with one who would teach error on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage error in his 17 part series in Christianity Magazine (April, 1989-August, 1990). Then, nine years later, as already mentioned, we learned that we could accept those who taught that the earth was billions of years old in direct contradiction to Genesis 1. Is institutionalism another issue over which brethren need not divide (2 John 9-11; Rom. 16:17-18)? Is it a Romans 14 issue?
5. Are brethren in foreign countries wrong for trying to convert institutional brethren out of their error? In a February, 1998, article detailing his work in Italy, brother Valerio Marchi wrote:
I think we are living the same experience of other places: the liberal brethren are more numerous then the conservatives. However, it happens (not very often, but it does happen) that liberal Churches change their view and take a stand against institutions, social Gospel, etc.; I can cite the good examples of the Churches of Christ in Siracusa (Sicily Island) and Pisa during these last 3 years. I personally am always available to keep in touch with all the liberals that are willing to debate with me, because I know that sooner or later some of them will be available to revise and correct their position. (Watchman Magazine)
Brother Marchi's experiences are similar to those of sound brethren in Brazil, Central America, Spain, the Philippines and, no doubt, other places as well. Such brethren have withstood the errors of institutionalism, not fellowshipped such brethren! Should they cease such efforts (Eph. 5:11)?
As shocking and unbelievable as the news we relate herein may be to all of us, we must recognize the hard lessons it teaches us. The application of unity-in-doctrinal-diversity has no logical end. Yes, there will be brethren who will be inconsistent and arbitrarily refuse to fellowship certain errors. However, many of us have noted this same phenomena among our institutional brethren who violate the silence of the Scripture with regards to the work of the church, but will not countenance other violations of the silence of God like instrumental music in worship. God's plan is still valid (2 Tim. 3:16-17; John 12:48). Let us continue to preach it, defend it and rebuke departures from it (2 Tim. 4:2; Jude 3).
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