Tolle Lege Institute

Theological Dependence of Non-American Protestantism

27 December 2017 | Filip Sylwestrowicz

It is hard to underestimate the impact of American Christianity on conservative Protestant circles outside of the United States. Naturally, it is a huge oversimplification to speak about “non-American Christianity.” Protestantism in wealthy countries, for example, is different from Protestantism in third-world countries. And Protestantism in places where Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy have dominated is different from Protestantism in historically Protestant countries. My aim in using the expression non-American Christianity is not to claim that my uniquely Polish experiences are perfectly applicable to other countries, but rather a way of indicating that this is more than a Polish issue. There is a huge disproportion in the size, capabilities, and resources of American conservative Protestantism and conservative Protestantism in other places. Evangelicals in many places look to America as a model of “doing the Church,” which causes some problems that I will attempt to demonstrate, using the example of Poland.

Theological Inferiority Complex

First, let me be clear. I do not blame American Christians for the theological dependence of evangelical circles in Poland or elsewhere. In fact, I am tremendously grateful for the involvement of American churches overseas. It is wonderful that they are willing to use their resources to promote the Gospel and theological education for the sake of global Christianity. I myself tend to rely heavily on American theological discourse in my readings and I decided to do my M.Div. in Canada (close enough, eh?). The involvement of US churches and organizations is a blessing for Christianity in Poland and elsewhere. Instead, I mean to address this as a by-product of the sad state of Protestantism in Poland.

I find it problematic that Polish evangelicals often assume that a proper “recipe” for Christianity is to copy recent trends in America. Interestingly, an assortment of ideas across the entire spectrum are copied—things based on sound theology, on very shallow teaching, and on everything in between. One can find Polish advocates of the radical charismatic movement and “Word of Faith” doctrine, but also rigid followers of John MacArthur’s cessationism. Some pastors would be impressed by the church growth movement, while others will think that home churches (also known as “organic churches” or “soma communities”) are the proper way of making disciples. Even the popularity of Reformed theology in the broader circles of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement has left its imprint on evangelicalism in Poland, and let me make a full disclosure—I have benefitted from that fact. It is not only the (often uncritical) reception of recent trends that bothers me. There seems to be a concealed assumption that content coming from the States is superior to local ideas.

Let me give an example—if you organise a conference in Poland with an American speaker, you are much more likely to gather a big audience. People seem to pay more attention to what someone says simply because he is an American. To a certain extent this is reasonable—not only are there many more well-trained theologians in the States, but also the training of the average American pastor is more thorough than that of the average Polish pastor. (To my knowledge, no evangelical seminary in Poland is currently offering a Master’s degree, and Polish seminaries often have only part-time students. The only Protestant faculty in Poland that offers an MA is the predominantly Lutheran Christian Theological Academy in Warsaw.) But not every American speaker is worth listening to or translating into Polish! Some of the materials that are translated into Polish definitely do not deserve it. Polish evangelicals do not translate only high-quality academic books or the best devotional materials (far too few of them are being translated!), but even the simplest Bible studies and evangelistic pamphlets, which could well be written by local pastors. And it does sometimes happen that books translated from English are of poor quality or contain obvious exegetical mistakes.

Some materials cannot be replaced. There are abundant riches of theological books available in English and it is highly desirable that they will be made available in other languages. Oftentimes when people in Poland ask me for book recommendations, I struggle to give any suggestions—there are simply no good books on many topics. But spending time and energy on translating more popular pamphlets that can be produced locally seems to demonstrate an elementary lack of trust in the capability of local pastors. Perhaps that time and energy could be better spent on translating more serious works. This would demand, however, that leaders in the churches be truly prepared for that task and confident that they can carry it on.

How Times Are Changing

Some aspects of the (over)fascination with American Christianity are tied to the wide availability of various materials through the internet. Certainly, many ideas would not reach Poland that quickly 30 years ago. But the dependence of evangelical Protestants on American Protestantism hardly began with the internet—it seems to me that this phenomenon has its roots in the 80s and 90s when American mission works were making inroads into Poland. At that time, there were fewer resources and opportunities available for Polish evangelical leaders. Only a few Poles knew English back then and hardly anyone could afford to get books from abroad. American missionaries had training and knowledge which were high above the standards of the small evangelical community in Poland. In many ways, they were a great blessing for Polish Christianity, but I wonder if that did not cause the inferiority complex that some evangelicals in Poland seem to have.

Today, the internet has changed the situation in many ways. Young people usually know English well and can read at least more popular resources available on the web. Theological books imported through Amazon are expensive, but accessible. Although studying theology in the States or other European countries is still above what the average Pole can afford, there is a growing group of people who were, in different ways, given the chance to do so. But despite having more opportunities today than in the past, still we are largely dependent on the theological vitality of American Christianity. In a country where Protestants constitute less than 1% of society (and confessional Protestants even less), it can hardly be otherwise. Even if Polish theologians obtain degrees abroad, only a few will find academic jobs in their home country. This was the fate of Polish Protestant theologians long before the present time—the Reformer John a Lasco (Jan Łaski) laboured for the Lord primarily in England, and the famous 17th-century theologian John Maccovius (Jan Makowski) taught at the Franecker University.

Looking for a Way Forward?

I do not think that there is a brilliant way forward or easy solution for the problem of theological dependence of conservative Protestants in Poland (or in other places in the world) on American resources. Generally, it is a great thing that we can benefit from the richness of American theological discourse, and I am myself translating English materials. I am not bothered that we are learning from American theologians, but I am bothered if we are giving higher credit to some ideas only because they come from the States. There is nothing wrong with translating books or inviting speakers from America, but there is a problem if we are so dependent that we need to translate even things that should be provided by local leaders.

Although I do not have any holistic solution, I think that some things may limit the negative aspects of this theological dependence. On the Polish side (or on the side of other countries in similar circumstances), perhaps churches and other organisations should be more careful in what they translate—investing time and resources to translate materials that cannot be produced locally. We should learn to appreciate our local writers and what they have to say, especially since the number of Polish conservative Protestants with solid theological training is growing. On the American side, I suppose it may be a wise strategy to support local initiatives and to invest in training leaders, rather than to provide more basic resources.

Filip J. Sylwestrowicz – editor of the Tolle Lege Institute’s blog and student of theology at Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. He has a licencjat (BA) in Hebrew Studies from University of Warsaw.