Icon of St. Nino holding her cross
Statue of St. Nino overlooking Tbilisi
Prayer candles in front of a Nino cross in an ancient Orthodox church
Rusudan reading Scripture during a Eucharistic celebration at the Gori Baptist Church
Rusudan holding a burned Bible from an attack by Orthodox extremists
The bishop loves to provide Georgian hospitality!
Rusudan Gotsiridze is a woman Baptist bishop in the Republic of Georgia. Not many people can combine those three terms! The Baptists in Georgia call their leaders bishops. As they tell me, the term is in the Bible--I have yet to find "Executive Minister" or "General Secretary" in the Bible, so they have a point! But a woman bishop in a part of the world where the ordination of women is usually frowned upon? In Georgia, however, there is an alternative history and an alternative witness in the present.
In the 4th Century a 16-year old girl, Nino, came alone to Georgia as an evangelist for Jesus Christ. She was fervent in prayer, and when the queen of Georgia was ill Nino prayed for her. The queen was healed and promptly was baptized into the new faith Nino proclaimed. The king was later baptized, too, and Georgia became the second country (after Armenia) to widely embrace Christianity.
Nino wanted to make a cross to show the Georgians as she preached. Georgia's extensive vineyards provided few straight sticks, so the crosspiece curved down. She cut her own long tresses to make the twine to lash the pieces together, forming the symbol which became known as St. Nino's cross. That symbol is found throughout Georgia, decorating doors, iron fences, icons on church walls, and the massive statue of St. Nino with arms upraised over the capital city of Tbilisi.
For all her apostolic ministry in Georgia Nino still was not recognized by that 4th Century church as a priest. A male priest had to be brought in to properly lead with the sacraments. The Baptists in Georgia, however, recognize and affirm the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon this amazing young woman who laid the foundations of faith that still support a vibrant Christian community centuries later.
When the Soviet Union existed the Georgian Baptists were under the structure dominated by the Russian Baptists who don't ordain women. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the Georgian Baptists became independent. One of the first things they did was begin ordaining women. Though the Georgian Orthodox Church has an exclusively male priesthood, for the Georgian Baptists the testimony of women leaders in the early church (Mary Magadalene, Phoebe, Priscilla, Junias, the daughters of Philip) and the historical mission of St. Nino provided plenty of witness and authority to recognize the Spirit's calling of women to ordained ministry.
Now there are many women pastors. A few years ago I had the privilege to participate in an ordination of new pastors, including two women. The woman upon whom I laid my hands had already experienced her congregation's church being burned down by Orthodox extremists. I wept as I consecrated this courageous sister to her ministry in the tradition of Nino.
Rusudan is the first Georgian Baptist women to be consecrated as a bishop, currently the #3 person in the Georgian Baptist church structure. She has also engaged in a powerful ministry in the larger society becoming a public voice for freedom for all religious minorities. With the break-up of the Soviet Union there has been a significant ideological strain within the Georgian Orthodox Church that has been hostile and even violent toward non-Orthodox Christians and non-Christian religious groups. Baptist churches have been burned, vandalized, and congregants beaten. The Bible Society warehouse in a Baptist facility was torched by the radicals--Christians burning Bibles!
This summer Rusudan worked with a Religious Tolerance Council to pass legislation to give official recognition to non-Orthodox groups. The first draft only recognized Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Lutherans and Baptists. It would be easy to see that as a victory and accept it, but not Rusudan. She immediately rejected that draft because of all the other minority groups left out because they were not strong enough to advocate for themselves or even who chose not to speak out about political concerns. Rusudan appeared on television repeatedly as a national voice for human rights for all religions. She led the struggle that led to a second draft of the legislation that brought legal recognition to all religious groups.
Rusudan knows that legislation isn't enough to make religious liberty a reality. Hearts still need to be changed, hate speech rejected, and relationships built with people of differing beliefs.
Where does such a trail-blazing woman in ministry turn for a role model? Right to the beginning of the Christian faith in Georgia, to that young, courageous girl, a woman of prayer, a proclaimer of the cross of Christ, St. Nino.
It's been my privilege to share the struggles with Rusudan and other Georgian Baptists. In November I was in Georgia at Rusudan's invitation doing training in conflict transformation, particularly related to the issues of overcoming religious intolerance.
A special thanks to all of you who enable me to support, encourage and equip the Georgian Baptists for the ministries for peace, justice and liberty. Your prayers and financial gifts are vital for this mission work!