was the former pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church of Chicago,
Illinois, and the former pastor of the First Armenian Evangelical
Church of Glendale, California. He is the former editor of
the official monthly
publication of the Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches of the
Near East, and the past editor of the Armenian Evangelical Union of
North America's quarterly publication, The Forum.
versed in the history and literature of both the Armenian
Apostolic as well as Evangelical Churches. Rev.
Darakjian's essay, first published by the Armenian Evangelical Union of
North America in the 1980's, is a serious attempt to explore the
distinctive identity and character of the Armenian Evangelical Church
and how knowledge of its history and awareness of its distinctive
mission will enhance its ministry.
Armenian Evangelical Identity:
Historical and Theological Perspectives
Rev. Barkev Darakjian
There is a widespread notion that the Armenian Evangelical Community is neither Armenian, nor Evangelical, and has no identity, reminding us of a dictum of an historian in regard to the Holy Roman Empire. It is also true that many Armenian Evangelicals become quite uneasy and even nervous when the issue of identity is raised. There are some reasons for this. First, we believe that humanity has lost its true and authentic identity since the fall of Adam, thus creating a personal identity crisis which continues until now. Second, the industrialization of society and the subsequent development of high technology in our times have removed whatever humanity was left in human beings. Third, almost all nations, the small ones in particular, are suffering from a gradual erosion of their national and ethnic identities. And, finally, we believe that the identity crisis must be considered on the national, rather than the ecclesiastical level.
All this does not mean that we must shrug off the issue of identity, nor must we go into panic because of some unfounded accusations. As a community existing for over 140 years, and sharing all that has befallen the Armenian people in general, we should have been better prepared to respond to irresponsible and malicious accusations. Frankly speaking, I am not much worried about what others say about our identity, but I become quite disturbed when Armenian Evangelicals, who are ignorant about the origins and the course of our church and community, try to minimize the issue of identity, or very naively adopt the position of some non-Evangelicals on that issue. In order to clear the air and to present the true identity of the Armenian Evangelical church community, I will try to probe the issue from both historical and theological perspectives.
I. HOW THE RIFT BEGAN
A. In 1846, the Evangelical Church of Armenian (the founding name of our church) was inaugurated as a church, but, due to human, national, and international factors, this new church was forced to declare itself a new “Millet”, which literally means nation. And, as a result of the fact that our Evangelical forefathers were thrown out of the Armenian Apostolic, or National Church, they were officially denied the name Armenian. The rationale behind it was that there could not be two Armenian nations in the Ottoman Empire. The Evangelical dissidents had no choice but to submit to this designation, i.e. Protestant Millet. It is unfortunate, not to say shameful, that the Armenian church hierarchy and the high ranking lay leaders in Istanbul not only persecuted the followers of the new movement but also unleashed nasty propaganda against our forefathers, calling the Protestant proselytes. The irony in this was that the Ottomans did not cease, at least unofficially, to recognize the Evangelicals as Armenians; neither did the Armenians, in general, deny them as their compatriots. However, there are still many Armenians today, even among the enlightened clergy, who consider us as second-class Armenians. Thus, the civil status of the Ottoman Empire on the one hand, and the uncompromising and harsh attitude of the Patriarchate of Istanbul against the dissidents, created this new “Millet” and so was the first reason leading to the subsequent gap between Apostolic and Evangelical Armenians.
B. Second, the religious revival and the recapturing of the Gospel of salvation by the Evangelicals brought about a dramatic cultural change among them. They began to observe Sunday with religious fervor. They would not handle money on Sundays, and abstained from smoking and alcoholic beverages. They ceased using foul language, cursing, and lying, and would not even take a legally required oath during a testimony in court. At the same time Evangelicals stopped venerating the saints and crossing themselves; stopped observing the traditional feasts and holidays. They even stopped observing the Lord’s birthday, or Christmas, for some time, recapturing a tradition that existed in the early Christian church. Easter was the only feast they observed. There were so many changes in their lifestyle, and even in their conversation, that people would see the difference and say, “You must be Protestant.” This new culture and lifestyle had no anti-Armenian motives, but, in the Apostle Peter’s words, “They were filled with new wine.”
C. Third, the use of the Turkish language in some of the Evangelical services became a stumbling-block to many. Turkish was the official language of the Ottoman Empire. Besides that, it was the language which the majority of the Armenian population understood and spoke. The Evangelicals had a new message to deliver to their compatriots - the message of the free salvation in and through Jesus Christ alone. This does not mean that the Apostolic Church did not have a message. Its centuries old liturgy and mass are full of Biblical readings and inspired prayers. However, they are rendered in old, classical Armenian which very few people understood. It was the language of the clergy reminiscent of the Holy Fathers of the Armenian Church and its ancient traditions. The lighted candles, the burning incense, the colorful garbs of the clergy and the chanting of the sharagans, all these created not only a mystical atmosphere, but more particularly, it invoked the old spirit of Armenian Christianity. In contrast, the majority of Armenian Evangelical worship services were held in Turkish. The hymns were sung in Turkish; the Bible was read in Turkish; the prayers were offered in Turkish and the sermons were given in Turkish. The only thing that made such a service Armenian, was the worshipers who considered themselves Evangelical Armenians. Exceptions were found in those churches located in towns or villages where Armenian was the spoken language. In such churches the services were held in Armenian. Again, we must stress that the fact that there was no deliberate attempt on the part of missionaries to alienate our forefathers from our compatriots, and from our Armenian culture. It would be simplistic and naive, if not malicious, to accuse the Armenian missionaries and our Evangelical forefathers of the sin of dividing our nation. The sin of dividing our people belonged to the Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Istanbul. He thought that by driving out the Evangelical dissidents from the Armenian Apostolic Church, he could also deny them the Armenian nationality which was the birthright of all Armenians regardless of their religious beliefs. The Patriarch and the lay leaders held, among other things, the mode and language of our worship services against the Evangelicals, accusing them of anti-Armenianism. However, the motive of our forefathers was very clear. They were deeply concerned over the failure of the Apostolic Church to communicate to its worshipers the true and simple message of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, they believed that the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ should be delivered in the language of the hearers. The Apostle Paul’s comments on this issue were a great encouragement to them. Paul says, “If you utter speech in a tongue that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air.” D.S. Shahpazian, a linguist scholar in Armenia, makes the following remark: “They (the Protestants - BND) taught in their schools and performed their church liturgy in the Armenian vernacular, well realizing that the people should be talked to in living language in order to attract them.” (D.S. Shahpazian: “Arevmudahay Ashkharhapari Aratchatzoomu”. The Progress - or, Introduction - Of the Armenian Vernacular. Pub. by Haybedharad, Yerevan, Armenia, 1963; p. 165)
D. The fourth reason which led the Apostolics to discredit the Evangelicals as Armenians was the rejection of the Armenian renaissance ideologies and movements by our forefathers. A great many Armenian students had gone to Europe and Russia to continue their education in different universities. These students had keenly observed, and were greatly affected by the nationalistic, humanistic, and revolutionary ideologies which had pervaded the entire continent. They were journalists, political scientists, medical doctors, literary figures, and lawyers among them. With no interest in religion, these intellectuals joined hands in voicing their displeasure about the way the national affairs and social problems were handled by the Patriarch and the amiras (wealthy lords). They also demanded a national constitution, and reform within the organization of the the church.
The Apostolic Church, and the public in general, were not yet ready to accommodate the new progressive ideologies. However, some segments of the population could not resist for long the lure of new patriotism, and of social reform. It is a pity that the Evangelicals could not find any allies among these enlightened students. While our forefathers were for spiritual reform within the church, the enlightened were for a liberal and democratic reform. Instead of winning some friends from the enlightened, the Evangelicals made enemies of them by warning the people against humanistic, atheistic, materialistic, and nationalistic ideologies. The intellectuals, on the other hand, ridiculed the other worldliness of the Evangelicals, and criticized them for their indifference towards the national cause. This led to the Evangelicals staying away from all cultural events. They would not even sing Armenian folk songs. Their task was to preach the Gospel, and the new life in Christ. They were filled with a missionary fervor and felt themselves responsible for their lost compatriots. They reflected their patriotism by their strict adherence to the laws of the country and by being loving and caring citizens and neighbors, feeling as Christians, they should not conform their lives to a secular culture and lifestyle.
II. WHAT MADE THE ARMENIAN APOSTOLIC CHURCH “NATIONAL”?
We often read in the Armenian papers that the Apostolics are not pleased with their churches and their clergy, not because they communicate the Gospel ineffectively, or fail to give a wholesome Christian education to their parishioners, but because the church and the clergy have been unable to provide an adequate program of Armenian national causes and heritage. These criticisms of lay people against their own Apostolic Church indicate a misconception about the nature and role of the church. They take the church to be a national institution, and often call it the Armenian National Church. There are historical reasons and explanations for this misconception. Here are some of them:
A. We know that the Christian faith was spread in Armenia not so much by the preaching of St. Gregory the Illuminator as by the swords of King Tiridates’ armies. Hand in hand with St. Gregory, the King planned on establishing a Christian Empire in the East even before Emperor Constantine of Rome had nay such dreams. The Church and State partnership began when King Tiridates proclaimed Christianity as the State religion in 301. A similar thing happened in Rome when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire in about 325. The history of the Christian church shows that any church and state partnership has been detrimental to the Church’s spiritual health and to her effective ministry to the people.
B. The second reason why the Apostolic Church has been known as the National Church is the severing of its ties with the West over a Christological issue. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the creed on Jesus’ having two natures, “perfect Man and perfect God,” was endorsed. The Armenian Church had no representatives at this Council. One of the reasons for this absence was the war of Vartanantz against Zoroastrian Persia. The Armenian Church, along with other oriental churches, repudiated the creed of the Council in regard to Jesus’ nature and came up with a monophysitic belief, that is, there was one dominant nature in Jesus after the incarnation and it was divine. The Armenian Church thus put emphasis more on the divine nature in Jesus of Nazareth. Its rejection of the Council of Chalcedon not only isolated the Armenian Church, but also made the West an enemy. Thus disaffected and alienated from Christendom, the Armenian Church identified itself more and more with national causes and aspirations.
C. The loss of the Armenian Kingdom and the subsequent loss of Armenia’s political independence created a vacuum and the church was forced to assume political leadership. The civil status of the nations to which the Armenian people were subjected in their homeland, and alter in the Diaspora, had further contributed to the merging of the church and nation. The clergy was charged with duties of running the affairs of the Armenian community, both religious and civil. They would also represent their people in court or at the Supreme Porte, and later with the civil governments. There is no doubt that the high ranking clergy had no choice in the face of such national emergencies. However, the church paid a big price for playing the role that was force upon here. Pressures coming from outside and from the community were so heavy that the church failed to keep in sight her true vocation and identity. Political and social upheavals in the homeland and within the Ottoman Empire put new challenges before the church and its clergy. Eventually, the church and its clergy were dragged into national and even international politics. The politicized church could no longer stand on her own feet. She needed the support of political parties, and also the backing of the government. Any social, religious, or political movement within the community was the concern of the church and of its clergy. Because of the church’s close identification with the nation, any attempt to bring reform with the church would have national repercussions. This is why the Evangelical reform movement failed to win the heart of the Armenian nation. Armenians were not yet ready for the idea of separation of church and state. Unfortunately, many today still adhere to the concept of the union of the nation and the church.
III. HOW DID THE ARMENIAN EVANGELICALS RESOLVE THE DILEMMA?
Are we, the Evangelical Armenians, a church or a Millet, i.e. a Protestant nation? If we are a church community, and an Evangelical Armenian church in particular, then the question of national identity becomes irrelevant. However, if we feel and act as a Protestant Millet, then we are perpetuating that name and status that were forced upon us by the Ottoman Empire through the instigation of the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul. Furthermore, we contribute to the efforts made by some Apostolics to de-Armenianize us. It is unfortunate that our Apostolic brethren drank the same wine we suffered, and still suffer its hangover. It was an expediency on the part of the Supreme Porte, and a malicious act perpetrated by the Patriarch, to separate our Evangelical forefathers from their compatriots. It was an either/or situation, a catch-22 dilemma for our forefathers. They could remain and live as Armenians only if they repented of their religious dissidence. The alternative was to be branded as “havadouratz” and “azkouratz”, a denier of one’s faith and nation.
The subsequent division that took place was very clear: “Are you an Armenian or a Protestant?” a Turkish official would ask of an Armenian, and the person either had to say, “I am and Armenian” (meaning Apostolic) or, “I am a Protestant.” My position is that this situation was deliberately imposed upon us by the Apostolic clergy and by the lay leaders of the community in Istanbul. The Patriarch disowned the Evangelical Armenians and refused to look after their religious needs and most particularly their civil rights. Our dead remained unburied; our weddings were not performed; our people could not undertake a journey or start a business without obtaining a permit from the Patriarchate which would deny them such services. The Patriarch first drove our forefathers out of the church and then ostracized them effectively. They created to this situation by further interiorizing and spiritualizing their lifestyle. After all that the Patriarch of Istanbul did to the Evangelicals, some Armenian historians continue to stigmatize our forefathers by accusing them of the sin of dividing the nation! My answer to this accusation would be in the form of a questions, “Who divided what?” I would accommodate the idea that our forefathers had engaged in separatist religious activities. However, these activities were carried on in good faith and intention. They constituted a loyal opposition within the church. They were sincere in their beliefs and honest and biblical in their rejection of some of the doctrines and traditions of the church. Yes, there was a split, but this split was not on the national or ethnic level. The Armenian Evangelical community has proved its identity, unity, and solidarity with the Armenian people throughout its existence.
The distinction that was made between Apostolic and Evangelical communities on the national level is irrelevant and linguistically false. The word “Armenian” denotes a people who are either from Armenia, or belong to the Armenian race. Whereas the word “Protestant” of “Evangelical” refers to the church fellowship or denomination to which a person belongs. If Armenianism denotes both the nation and the Apostolic church, then what about the Armenian atheists of the Soviet Union and elsewhere who are not Christian. And, if they are not Christian, they cannot be counted as Apostolics either. If any comparison or distinction will be made between the Apostolic and Evangelical communities, it must be made on the ecclesiastical level.
Some Apostolic historians claim that the Apostolic church has been instrumental in the survival of the Armenian nation. They boast that without the Apostolic Church the Armenian nation would have gone into oblivion long ago. But what does this argument, which is hypothetical, have to do with Evangelical Armenians? There were Armenians, and an Armenian nation long before the Christian religion and the Apostolic Church became the State religion and the State Church of Armenia. I am in no way trying to undermine the role of the Apostolic Church; what I mean is that the providential role that the church played in the survival of the nation should not be brought up as a point to argue that the Apostolics are purer and better Armenians as compared to the Evangelical Armenians! These historians should not lose sight of the fact that the Armenian Evangelical Church and community have a history of less than a century and a half behind them. Before that they too were Apostolic. Furthermore, the Evangelicals now constitute only 0.6% of the entire Armenian population of the world. What comparison can be made between these two church communities that would be valid and true? No, the Armenian Evangelical Church and community have no apologies to offer to anybody. Our past 143 years of peaceful and fruitful existence within the Armenian communities at large should dissipate even the tiniest shred of doubt about our unity and solidarity with the Armenian people. In this brief survey we cannot present a thorough and exhaustive study about the contributions of the Evangelical Armenians to the Armenian nation. However, here are some glimpses:
Who can ignore of deny the contributions of the Evangelical Armenians in the are of education? Before the horrible massacres in Turkey, there were hundreds of primary and secondary schools, colleges, and seminaries which were directly or indirectly supported by the Evangelicals. According to Vahe Erganian, the late and most renowned historian of Armenian culture, in 1914 the Protestants owned and operated 675 schools in Turkey. (Vahe Erganian: Haygagan Mushagooytu; 1800-1917. - The Armenian Culture - 1800-1917, Armenian SSH KA Publication, Yerevan, 1982; p. 54) These educational institutions were open to all, and all Armenians benefited from the scholarships that the missionaries provided. It is beside the point to allude to the fact that these schools were run mostly by foreign missionaries who used their educational facilities to “proselytize” the Armenian people. In that dark territory of the Ottoman Empire it would be absurd to question the color of the candle which was to enlighten the minds and hearts of our people. It should also be noted that the Evangelical churches and communities brought their substantial contribution not only for the maintenance of those missionary schools, but also to start new schools of their own. They faithfully adopted and carried on the educational legacy left to them by the missionaries by starting new schools everywhere, and by introducing a new awareness among our people for the need of scholarships so that no Armenian child would be denied a decent education because of poverty. The Armenian Missionary Association of America has become the embodiment of that legacy and spirit with its 71 years of dedicated service and achievements in that field.
B. Literary and Cultural
Even at the time when our Evangelical forefathers were being vilified by their Apostolic compatriots saying that the Evangelicals were not Armenian, Elias Riggs, a missionary and linguist, was heading a group of Armenian Evangelical teachers and ministers to realize his monumental project to translate the Bible into the Armenian vernacular. The translators worked out a peculiar grammar and syntax to be used for the translation. The evidence of this is shown in an article written by the renowned grammarian, Hovhannes Kazanjian (not an Evangelical) in the “Massis” newspaper, in 1907, where Kazanjian reveals that the first Armenian analytical grammar book was prepared and published by a Rev. Meguerditch Kirejian in 1863. Kirejian has also translated, most successfully, many hymns, some of which have found their way into our present hymn books.
The translation of the Bible into Armenian vernacular was a giant step in the development of the Armenian literary language of the West, i.e. the western dialect. One of the great editors in those days, Puzant Kechian, calls the “Ashkharhapar” Armenian “the language of the Protestant.” He also describes the language of the translation as “the purest and most popular and neat language in those days.” Many renowned literary figures and linguists in Armenia and the diaspora acknowledge the fact that the translation of the Bible into the vernacular has no only enriched our literary language, but it actually contributed to the victory of the “askharhapar” over the “krapar,” that is the old classical Armenian. Professor Vahe Oshagan calls the translation “the best both in volume and in quality.” (HAIGAZIAN ARMENOLOGICAL REVIEW, Ed. Dr. Yervant Kassouny; see the article “Arevmudahay Badmuvatzki Dzakoomu” - The Rise of the Short Story in the Western Armenian Dialect, By Prof. Vahe Oshagan; Beirut, 1971, p. 210.)
Writing about the contribution of the Protestant schools in Turkey to the cultivation and spreading of the Armenian vernacular, Shahpazian writes, “under the nose of the Armenian Patriarchate in Constantinople (modern Istanbul - BND) and in the Armenian populated quarters of Pera and Pepec, the missionaries (through Armenian teachers - BND) taught in their exemplary Junior High Schools in a pure Armenian vernacular while the Armenians (meaning Apostolics - BND) besides having no such schools, taught in their elementary schools in krapar (Old Classical Armenian - BND) thus to dull their mind.” (Ibid: p. 152)
The Evangelical Armenians have not produced great literary figures, but they have had a good number of linguists, translators, editors, columnists, and historians such as the Amirkhanians, Prof. H.T. Kayaian, Rev. Hovhannes Krikorian, Rev. Manasseh Papazian, Dr. Avedis Nakkashian, Rev. Antranig Bedikian, Rev. Khachadour Bennenian, Rev. Arsen Shemoanovian, Hovagim Fermanian, Rev. Yeghia Kassouni, Rev. Arsen Georgizian, and scores of scholars. These Evangelical writers have had great impact on Armenian and Christian thinking by their timely and forceful articles.
C. Christian Social Service
This area also has been the legacy of the missionaries. If our people ever forget the pioneering work that was done by the Evangelical Armenians, the “stones will cry out.” Rev. Krikor Baghdassarian of Brussa began an orphanage in his home in 1875 with only one little orphan girl. This orphanage - unfortunately in one respect and fortunately in another - grew to be a haven for hundreds of Armenian orphans. Baghdassarian, his wife and daughter, and later their son Otto, continued the orphanage for 39 years, until 1914. They gave not only shelter, but also provided education and jobs to the orphans. No missionary funds were involved. Armenian Evangelical churches, individuals, and the proceeds of small enterprises which Baghdassarian himself had created and conducted, made the orphanage self-supporting.
Another orphanage was founded in Aintab by Rev. Haroutyun Hallajian, and was called the Hallajian Orphanage. For almost 30 years Hallajian ran this orphanage all by himself and then turned it over to the Central Turkey Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches.
We have also had Rev. Aharon Shirajian who was called the “Father of Orphans” in Aleppo, Syria; Rev. Yenovk Hadidian, the founder of the Azounieh Asylum, in Beirut, Lebanon; also, two great philanthropists: Vartan Jinishian and Stephen Philibosian.
D. National Enlightenment and Struggle
Very little is know and written about the role of the Evangelical Armenians in the areas of national enlightenment and of the national survival. There are some reason for this silence. One of them is the shying away of the Evangelicals from national affairs for reasons I mentioned above. Small in number, and ostracized by their compatriots, they were engaged in the spreading of the word of God, opening new churches and schools, and organizing spiritual fellowships throughout nineteenth century Turkey. However, this period, which covers the years from 1846 to 1914, was not fruitless on the national level. The high schools, and especially the colleges that the missionaries had founded, became vehicles to instill into the minds and hearts of the young Armenians democratic and nationalistic ideas and principles. The histories of the independence in Europe, and especially in America, kindled the minds of the students. Even the Turkish government was alarmed by the importation of these western, liberal, democratic, and nationalistic ideas. Our colleges in Kharpert and Marsovan were put on the black list because they were suspected of being forges where comitajies (revolutionaries) were molded.
On the national level, the congregational system of our churches was contrasted to the clergy-centered system in the Apostolic Church. Non-Evangelicals observed how authority was shifted from the clergy to the congregation without causing any disruption or inconvenience. I am strongly tempted to presume that the Evangelical church system opened the way for the Apostolics to demand a democratic reform, and for a national constitution which was finally realized in 1860. Even if my argument is not seen to be conclusive, I would still maintain that the demand for democratic measures within the Apostolic community was an indirect consequence of Evangelical church policy.
Another and more important reason for having little knowledge about the Evangelicals’ role in the national struggle is the historians’ non-partisan treatment of the Armenian saga. In general, the leaders of the revolutionary and self-defense parties and committees were not distinguished on the basis of their denominational affiliation. Nor were the heroes identified with one church or another. It was a commendable attitude, even if they did so without realizing it, for whatever those revolutionaries, leaders, and heroes did, they did it for being Armenian and Christian. They fought and died, and, in some cases, were martyred because they were all Christian Armenians. For example, Adour Leonian, the military leader of the Aintabtzis in their self-defense against the Turks, did not fight the enemy because he was an Evangelical, but because he was a Christian Armenian. The Rev. Dikran Antreassian headed the Supreme Council for Self-Defense on Mussa Dagh not because he was an Evangelical pastor, but because he was a Christian Armenian. Soghomon Tehlirian was of Evangelical tradition. However, it was because he was an Armenian that he terrorized and killed Talaat Pasha, the arch criminal in the Ittihad Party and government. Dr. Beny, on of the twenty Armenian nationalists hanged by the Turkish government in Istanbul, was an Evangelical patriot.
However, the non-partisan treatment of Armenian history has been disadvantageous for the Evangelical Armenians. It has given a wrong impression that the Evangelicals have not given any heroes, and have contributed nothing to the Armenian cause. This overlooks the fact that there were many Evangelicals who held key positions in Armenian political parties. Perhaps they do not know. Furthermore, it is deeply regrettable that the Evangelicals have often been a target of unjust and irresponsible accusation, or, alternately, have been consciously and totally ignored. Rev. Dikran Antreassian’s case is one very deplorable example.
Finally, we can declare with certainty and confidence that the Evangelical church has become a symbol and road sign pointing to the urgency of reform in the Apostolic Church. In recent years we have seen some beginnings of reform in the Church. More than ever before, articles are now appearing in the Armenian papers voicing the need for reform and of modernization of the Mother Church. We are overjoyed by the fact that now our Mother Church counts within the ranks of its clergy highly educated priests, vartabeds, and bishops. My feeling is that the more educated clergy it has, the more communication lines will be open for effective and meaningful dialogues between the two churches.
Half a century ago Sunday School was coined “Protestant” and so it was taboo. The Apostolic churches now, at least here, in the Untied States, have Sunday Schools and Christian Education programs which are often much better than ours. The Mother Church is now seriously discussing the elimination of celibacy, and just last year three vartabeds were given special permission by the Vehapar in Etchmiadzin to get married with no fear of loosing their rank and position. So, slowly but surely, the Evangelical reform spirit catches the Apostolic Church. We rejoice and thank God for this.So far I tried to show who and what caused the identity gap between Apostolic and Evangelical communities. I discussed the historical contingencies which made the Apostolic Church “National” and how the Evangelicals continued to identify themselves with the Armenian people without pomp and ceremony. Now I shall further tackle the Millet mentality and will propose some possible ways to resolve this mentality and the resulting identity crisis.
IV. ATTEMPTS TO RESOLVE THE MILLET MENTALITY
This writer has no illusion about a quick solution to the still prevailing Millet mentality among our people. The problem is too complicated and is mostly due to the existence of a world-wide Diaspora. In countries like Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iran the minorities are classified according to their religious affiliations. In the case of Armenians, the three religious communities, Apostolic, Catholic, and Evangelical are recognized by the heads of their respective churches. The old Ottoman Millet system is still the prevailing civil status, with some modifications, in such countries. In Soviet Armenia, and in other western countries where church and state are separated, Armenians are recognized by virtue of the citizenship, and the churches have no civil jurisdiction over their parishioners.
Another factor which affects the perseverance of the Millet mentality is the historic role that the Armenian Apostolic Church has played throughout the past centuries. I have treated this issue earlier in this paper. In the absence of a “Father” (King, Government), the Apostolic Church, as Mother Church, was obliged to assume the roles of both Father and Mother to protect and to nurture the Armenian people. Thus the nation and the church became a single entity. For the Armenians living in those days, it was incomprehensible to be an Armenian without belonging to the Mother Church. This is why names such as “Armenian Evangelical” or “Armenian Catholic” were considered aberrations by the Armenians in general. So the Evangelicals and Catholics were different millets in their eyes.
However, we, as Evangelical Armenians, have proved the fallacy of this argument and notion. We have put to shame those who attempted to rob us of our God-given Armenian name and racial lineage. We have proved that one’s religious faith has nothing to do with his/her nationality. One can be Evangelical, Catholic, atheist, or deist, and can still be an Armenian.
For us Armenians, the separation of Church and Nation (or State) remains an ideal which apparently will not be realized until all Armenians are repatriated and live in a democratic and secular homeland. Only then, I believe, can the Millet mentality be eradicated. In the meantime, both the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian Evangelical Church can do certain things to minimize this mentality which besides being prejudicial, is also harmfully divisive.
DENATIONALIZE THE ARMENIAN APOSTOLIC CHURCH
1. I think the time has come for the Armenian Apostolic Church to “denationalize” or to “de-politicize” itself. The Mother Church has for over 500 years been a surrogate “government” of the Armenian people in the Diaspora. The church assumed this role and position since 1461 when Fatih Sultan Mohamed created the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul, with Bishop Johachim of Brussa as the first Patriarch. What started as a political maneuver and showmanship by the Sultan vis-a-vis Christian Europe, continued as a legalized ecclesiastical rank and position within the church. Johachim and his successors took their orders neither from their parishioners nor from the Catholicos in Etchmiadzin, or in Sis, but from the Sultan. It was a sort of religious monarchianism which continued until 1863, at which time a short-lived national constitution was drawn up an the Patriarch became the constitutional ruler of his parish.
There are some encouraging signs which indicate that the Mother Church is in the process of reviewing its role as a church and its need for a spiritual revival. There are a considerable number of high-ranking Apostolic clergymen who are not happy seeing the church disoriented and emptied of its biblical and theological content and spiritual discipline. Bishop Norvan, Pastor of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Lyons, France, is one of those clergymen who expresses his deep concern over “the absence of inner essence - hewt - and of theological thinking and world-view” in the church. “My concern,” says Bishop Norvan, “is to return the church to its essence.” The Church, for Bishop Norvan, has two meanings. The first is “the gathering of God’s children together, which in its essence, is founded on the person of Christ.” The second meaning of the Church is “the building where worship services are held and holy sacraments are performed. In our church I see the absence of its first meaning.” Bishop Norvan admits that the church is not engaged in evangelism and has failed to create spiritual fellowship among the “so-called believers free from national formalism.” (See Hayrenik Daily, 2/2/85, “The Inner Essence” of the Armenian Church, as quoted by Armen Damadian).
In a recent interview with the Editor of BEMA, Archbishop Torkom Manougian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese, responds to the question, “How do you describe the primary mission of the church?” with the following words: “The Armenian Church is a member of the Body of Christ and, therefore, has the same mission as the Church of Christ or any other Christian Church. And that is to save the soul by teaching the word of God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ our Savior...People are sometimes confused about this mission, regarding the church as one among other national institutions, educational, cultural or otherwise. And that is wrong...The mission of the church is to provide spiritual nourishment.” (See BEMA, February 1985). However, Archbishop Manougian sees a close connection between the physical existence and survival of the Armenian people and its spiritual life and nourishment which is very true. My impression is that both Bishop Norvan and Archbishop Manougian want to see the church identified with its Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, rather than with the Armenian nation (or any nation). They seem to think that the church should not be subservient to national and mundane aspirations of our people.
Last last year I read a news report in the Armenian Reporter, according to which an Armenian journalist in Istanbul asked the Turkish Prime Minister to allow the Armenians to have a non-religious body represent the Armenian community. “The Patriarch,” says the journalist, “is the spiritual and religious leader of the Armenians, and since Turkey is a “laique” (or secular) country, he cannot speak in the name of Armenians.”
My feeling is that the Armenian people are now able to preserve their national identity not so much because of the Apostolic Church (or any church), but because of the gigantic and heroic efforts of the Armenian patriotic organizations, political parties, and the Armenian news media, cultural and educational institutions, and philanthropic associations. Since we live in a secularized state and society we cannot keep acting as a mere religious community, dragging the church and the clergy into our political or secular affairs. We should be aware of the fact that the basis of our national unity is not and cannot be the church - any church - anymore, but our race, our language, and the historic Armenian nation. I believe that a church can be a more effective vehicle for national unity and brotherly love by ministering the gospel of peace, faith, hope, and love to its parishioners than by sponsoring national, political, and cultural events. I hate to see the Mother Church of all Armenians, including the Armenian Evangelicals, dragged into partisan squabbles and political warfares, thus compromising its divine calling.
RENATIONALIZE EVANGELICALS AS ARMENIANS
2. We Evangelical Armenians should be mindful of the fact that we are not a Millet but a constituent part of the Armenian people. This gives us both the right and the privilege to get involve in our National Cause and concerns. We have to get over the Millet mentality, be it expressed in the form of apathy, scorn, snobbism, timidity or in the name of religious conservatism. Just because we do not designate our religious and educational institutions “Azkain,” we cease to be “azkain.” We have a right to be elected to National Councils and assemblies, not as representatives of a religious community, but by virtue of our having racial and national identity with the Armenian people. By the same token it is our individual right and privilege to engage in constructive criticism against the activities and different aspects of our national life. However, we must recognize and respect the peculiar status and nature of our churches and religious organizations. This does not mean that the church (any church, be it Apostolic or Evangelical) is a sacrosanct or untouchable institution. It means that we must apply norms and criteria that are other than nationalistic, political and economic. The work of the church must be judged and evaluated by the application of Biblical and theological faith and discipline. The Church is called by our Lord Jesus Christ for a peculiar mission - to preach and spread the good news of salvation and to prepare people for His final coming by which time God’s Kingdom will be established. The Church can keep its integrity only by being faithful to its calling.
ACCEPT EVANGELICALISM AS A CHRISTIAN EXPRESSION OF ARMENIANS
3. If it is legitimate to have Armenians of different political persuasions (even atheistic Marxists), it must be legitimate and quite natural to have Armenians of different religious persuasions. Our Armenian Evangelical Church is the fellowship of those who choose to practice their faith in a manner different from those of Apostolic or Catholic churches. We do not claim that our church is holier and more faithful to its calling than the other churches. However, speaking for the followers of the Evangelical faith, we can claim to be a church of Christ working in and through the Armenian people. This is true and valid Biblically, historically, and theologically. It may sound redundant, but it is important to be reminded of the fact that in the year 1846 we were formed as a church with the intention of serving the Lord by preaching the Gospel of salvation to our compatriots. If we became a Millet, it was because we were left with no other option. The subsequent events and circumstances, which were beyond our control, imposed upon us the status of a Millet.
RENAME OUR CHURCHES AS ARMENIAN EVANGELICAL
4. We are not Congregational or Presbyterian. We are Evangelical. When our Evangelical founders were asked what church body they would like to join, the replied, “We do not need to determine any new denomination, or to adopt any foreign polity in all details. We have been the disciples of the Gospel and have already adopted its soul-nourishing principles. Therefore, we have decided to be named the Evangelical Church of Armenia, and nothing else.”
I have two serious reasons for raising this issue: first, “Congregational” and “Presbyterian” describe the polity of a church, and say nothing in respect to its faith. My position is that even if we want to retain these names, let us put them in parenthesis following the name of “Armenian Evangelical Church” (Congregational/Presbyterian).
My second concern is historical. A historian will be confused in his attempt to relate our churches in the United States to the Armenian Evangelical Church or to churches in the Middle East and elsewhere. Furthermore, multiplicity of the names we use gives support to the notion held by non-evangelical writers that we are not an Armenian church body, but a cluster of churches affiliated with foreign bodies. This will be a hindrance in our attempt to make our ministry effective among our compatriots. It also creates an undue identity crisis among Evangelicals. Our Union, the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America, is most commendable for retaining the name Evangelical, and I think it is only natural that the churches which form this Union should also be called Evangelical.
V. THE IMAGE AND FUNCTION OF THE EVANGELICAL CHURCH OF ARMENIA
We are a church, a community of believers in Jesus Christ, called to worship and praise Him as our Lord and Savior. Our church is open to all God’s children who feel the need for Christian love and fellowship.
We do not believe that as a church we should identify ourselves with our nation, because, the church has been instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ, and He is the only Head of His church. Therefore, our church identifies itself with its Lord and Master, and with the commission that He has entrusted to it.
We do not worship, admire, or idolize the church, because it is not the Lord, the Redeemer, the Judge who determines our final destiny. We do not absolutize it, because it belongs to its Lord, and the Lord Jesus Christ brought it into existence, and it is He who decides her ultimate fate. This means that the church is not the object of our faith, but it is a vehicle that brings to us God’s grace in the form of the preached word, and in the Holy Sacraments of Baptism and of the Eucharist.
We can truly endorse the warning that Hans Kung, the Catholic theologian, voices in regard to the church’s place in society, namely, “It would be fatal for the church to see itself primarily as a powerful factor in public life, as a high-powered combine, as a cultural or educational force, as the guardian of culture (Western - in our case, Armenian) as the bastion of tradition or the establishment, as a slightly more pious pressure group among many pressure groups, competing with others for power in politics, the arts, education and economics. If it did this the church would be abdicating as a church, forgetting the crucial element which alone can make its visible aspects into a true church: the Spirit, which invisibly controls the visible church, making it spiritually alive, fruitful, and credible.”
Also with Kung, we believe that “If the church wants to remain true to its nature, it cannot simply preserve its past. As an historical church it must be prepared to change in order to fulfill its essential mission in a world which is constantly changing, which always lives in the present, not the past.”
I said that as a church we cannot, and should not, have national identity. However, I also believe that we have a prophetic mission to perform among our people. As an Armenian church, we are called to identify ourselves not only with the needs, such as moral, spiritual, social, etc., of our people, but also with our people’s sins and sorrows. We must feel with them in their frustrations and desperations. As a church, we are not supposed to be an organization, or society dedicated to human rights, or political and economic liberation. However, as Christian Armenians, we cannot remain indifferent towards man’s in humanity to man, and towards political and economic injustice which is so evident in our society. We can very well sympathize with Gutierrez, Sobrino, and Boff, Catholic Liberation Theologians, who have dedicated their lives to the liberation of their compatriots from economic, social, and political tyranny and injustice. However, we also understand the concerns of Pope John Paul over the course and the direction in which Liberation Theology might lead the Church.
If our church has been called by God to serve the Armenian people, which I strongly believe, let us then serve this people with whom we Armenians bear racial identity, with prophetic courage, humility, and sacrificial love. We do not have to be a “National church” in order to get involved in the life and affairs of our people. If we believe in our prophetic mission, let us act as prophets. Let us go to the court of Pharaoh and demand of him to let our people go! Let us go to Samaria, like Amos did, and prophesy against the king and the hierarchy for the injustice that runs in their streets, and against their paganism, materialism, and hedonism.
When I think of our Armenian Evangelical Church, and of its mission among our people, I cannot help recalling the prophet Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant who could be Isaiah himself, the Israelites, or Jesus of Nazareth. However, I would like to see the Armenian Evangelical Church in the role of that Suffering Servant:
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root outMay God fill our minds and hears with the spirit of His prophets to understand His will and to perform our mission among our people with wisdom, courage, humility, and love, for the glory of God and the redemption of our people.