A Servant’s Enduring Faith

Marie Notcheva
Friday, May 6th 2011
May/Jun 2011

On a sweltering night in downtown Sofia, well-dressed couples pour into an overflowing stone church. First Evangelical Congregational Church is hosting a night of classical music commemorating the “Year of the Bible” in Bulgaria. As Rachmaninoff’s prelude fills the sanctuary, a silver-haired gentleman and his wife enter and are greeted by several attendees. It is obvious that many people are fond of this man; their demeanor is friendly, yet respectful. Neither tall nor intimidating, Pastor Hristo Kulichev doesn’t stand out in a crowd. His brown eyes convey gentleness yet become intense when he preaches. With a broad smile and kind word for everyone, Pastor Hristo resembles everyone’s favorite grandfather. Tonight, the retired minister is enjoying a concert with his wife Tsvetanka in the church he has pastored for decades. No casual observer would imagine he had spent years in brutal Communist prisons and labor camps.

Rev. Kulichev does not rely on gimmicks, flashiness, or emotionally charged oration. A soft-spoken man, whether preaching or defending himself to the state police, his tone remains even. He disdains hair gel and designer suits, and has never owned a Rolex. A man not given to self-indulgence or introspection, Kulichev prefers content over style. In the pulpit, he rarely mentions himself—he strives to glorify God alone by preaching Christ from all the Scriptures.

In January 1985, as totalitarianism was gasping its last breaths in Eastern Europe, Pastor Hristo and his brother Dimitar were arrested for preaching after having their ordination credentials revoked by the state. In prison, his logical Scripture-laced responses and calm demeanor enraged his interrogators. Behind his imperturbable exterior lay an iron will—one fully submitted to God rather than man. Already middle aged at the time of his arrest, the unassuming preacher could not be manipulated by any state agent or prison guard into “cooperating.” Selling out was simply beneath his dignity.

Kulichev is the epitome of grace under pressure. When he was summoned by the Ministry of the Interior, his son suggested he wear an extra layer of clothing in anticipation of a damp prison cell. Kulichev declined, insisting on wearing his Sunday suit in order to look the equal of his interrogators. After three nights sleeping on a prison floor and a train ride north, handcuffed to four other prisoners, his suit was ruined. Undaunted, this “enemy of the state” used the trip to tell his traveling companions about Jesus Christ.

The Communists wanted the one thing from Kulichev that he was not willing to give: compromise. Authorities had long been attempting to replace him as pastor of First Evangelical with a well-known party collaborator. Such flagrant interference in a congregational church was against both the church’s bylaws and Bulgaria’s constitution, as Kulichev reminded his interrogator. Twice he was offered freedom in exchange for relinquishing his pulpit to the state. Twice he refused. Kulichev insisted on remaining faithful to God’s call on his life, which, he repeatedly explained, was to preach the gospel.

The congregation stood loyally behind him, even bolting the doors of the church when a police escort arrived to install the state-sanctioned “pastor.” The militia returned with German shepherds that tore the sanctuary apart. One elderly member quipped, “We Christians have faced lions before. They think we’re afraid of a few dogs?”

Due to a well-oiled propaganda machine, few in the West realized how persecuted Bulgarian Christians were in the 1980s. It was common practice for gospel-preaching pastors to be removed from their churches and replaced with Communist agents. Sermons were reviewed and censored; peace, labor, and “brotherly love” were approved topics. Sin, redemption, and salvation through Christ were strictly off limits. Sunday schools were illegal. The government confidently predicted that by the year 2000, the church would no longer exist in Bulgaria. Attempts to undermine and discredit from within were more effective than outright persecution. Even today, many of Bulgaria’s older generation are completely incapable of distinguishing Lenin’s ideology from that of Christ.

In prison, Kulichev distinguished himself among both guards and prisoners. A vegetarian for health reasons, the pastor refused meat on principle. Kulichev unfailingly knelt in his filthy cell to thank God for each meager bread ration. Assigned with two cellmates to work at the prison sink, he insisted that they wash utensils “as if they were going into our own mouths.” Being absolutely consistent, even in matters with no overt spiritual significance, was his way to maintain integrity. Trusting in God and his parishioners’ faithfulness, Kulichev constantly rehearsed Scripture and seized clandestine witnessing opportunities.

Sofia Central Prison was infamous for dehumanizing conditions. In 1985, guards were still torturing and beating prisoners in padded cells to elicit confessions. Although Kulichev escaped such brutality, the agents tormented him psychologically by claiming his wife or congregants had become informants. “You obviously don’t know my wife,” he retorted, knowing that Tsvetanka was no stranger to persecution. In 1896, a mob had torched her grandfather’s home and ran him out of the village for refusing paedo-baptism. She stood up to the police when they ransacked the family’s apartment and became an invaluable source of support during Kulichev’s imprisonment.

The couple had long since resolved that they and their children would serve God, although they would constantly be forced to count the cost. Kulichev recalls: “Our first real testing as a family came when I was fired from my teaching position. I was expected to stop going to church in order to remain a high school teacher, something we could not do. I became a house construction worker, an exhausting profession. I worked six days a week and on Sunday I traveled to preach. There was no time to rest or prepare sermons. Then, my wife and I both succumbed to the temptation to seek work in line with our education. We soon understood that any such work would have many compromises attached…and accepted that our current circumstance would be the norm.”

This experience strengthened Kulichev’s resolve not to train his two children in duplicity to make life more bearable. Neither joined the Young Pioneers or Komsomol, despite pressure from teachers. The prospect of their bleak future was often dangled before him, but Kulichev never allowed himself to worry that his faith would ruin their lives. As he would later do in prison, Kulichev learned to discipline his mind. “Three thoughts strengthen me in difficulties and temptation,” he says. “On Golgotha, my Lord died in my place on a coarse wooden cross. I strive not to allow anything to overshadow that picture before my eyes. Also, the Church is my spiritual family and through it I become a part of the Body of Christ. I may be only the nail on the little finger, but I belong to His Body. Thirdly, I think about the future in His glory.”

After serving his initial sentence, Kulichev traveled around Bulgaria, preaching and encouraging youth groups. Arrested again, he was exil-ed to northern Bulgaria. He viewed his time in the de-tention camp as his personal “Patmos”—a sabbatical to be used for study and prayer. After two years of internment, he was released in 1988, a year before democracy arrived in Bulgaria. “I prefer to be in prison with Christ than free without Him,” he maintains, and doesn’t understand people’s condolence. “Why ‘sorry’? My imprisonment was the greatest gift God could have given me. I was counted worthy to partake in the sufferings of Christ,” he says, echoing Paul’s joyful prison letters.

During the 1990s, I listened to Kulichev preach on the dangers of compromise and the need to stand firm in faith. Transitioning from an insulated, underground Christianity to a growingly materialistic society, believers were less equipped to resist the infusion of worldliness than they were the godless evil of Communism. “In the past, the Church changed the world,” Kulichev says. “Now, the world is changing the Church. Throughout its history, the Church’s main challenge has been to preserve its purity, and the evangelical underground church was very strong; very pure. The believers were ready to lay down their lives for the gospel, whereas now, some come to church because it’s interesting, like a hobby; but they come without a full surrender of their lives to Christ.”

Church attendance in Bulgaria declined somewhat after the initial boom of interest in the early 1990s. As the nation approaches its twenty-second year anniversary of democracy this fall, the gospel is no longer the “novelty” it once was. “Some will always receive the Good News with joy, but after a while fall away,” Kulichev notes. “Now that there are no restrictions on believers, that very freedom leads to some making compromises with their faith.” Until a decade ago, lukewarm Christianity was unheard of in Eastern Europe. Now, a more casual approach toward worship and Christian life is seeping in—personified by the teens now starting to show up to church in t-shirts and flip-flops.

The type of surrender Kulichev has in mind leaves little room for ambiguity. In 1993, he preached a memorable sermon on tithing that left me, as a fiercely independent 22-year-old, both convicted and incredulous. Many in the mostly elderly congregation were living on $50 monthly pensions. After Kulichev built a watertight case for biblical giving, I watched arthritic hands dig deeply into threadbare pockets and purses. These Christians had never compromised before; why should they start now?

Another challenge to Bulgaria’s evangelical community came in the 1990s, when Western missions inadvertently competed with established churches by working independently. “Bulgarian Protestants themselves don’t know their own history,” Kulichev laments. He encourages foreign parachurch organizations to work with the nation’s existing church, thus promoting unity in the Body. “Missionaries came with the attitude that Bulgaria is a blank canvas with no churches, to which they had to bring the Gospel….Many couldn’t understand that there were people in this country who already knew their Lord and Savior—people who had suffered for their faith, and who persevered in trials and persecution.”American missionaries tended to undermine their own witness with their lavish lifestyles, and in Kulichev’s opinion would benefit from the self-sacrificing example of the Balkans’ earliest evangelists.

Kulichev has traveled widely in the United States, preaching and speaking at conferences. (Several months after interviewing him, I learned from another American that he is proficient in English—a detail he neglected to mention during our time together.) While he loves American believers, he is concerned about our tendency to become “slaves to our own comfort.” “The freedom in which Christians live is a much bigger temptation than trials,” he said. “A person who has lived in comfort and is used to living without ordeals doesn’t want to lose that way of life. He is prepared to make concessions in his loyalty to God. This mentality goes against what God wants from His flock—obedience and faithfulness, which are not measured in percentages. There is no 50%, 90% or 99% loyalty—a wife would not be pleased if her husband were 50% faithful.”

Undaunted by oppression from outside the church, he is more pained by personal attacks from within. “The thorn in my flesh was inflicted by my Christian brothers,” he admits. “Some have said that I am very extreme and opinionated; that I am an uncouth cement mixer; a common laborer. Likewise, in Corinth, some didn’t accept Paul as an apostle.” Such criticism can be deadly to a novice pastor, and Kulichev cautions against the fear of man. “Do not take interest in your ministry’s results or compare yourself to others,” he said. “This can sometimes cause you to consider yourself a failure; or it may breed jealousy or gloating in you. This is the devil’s goal. God wants you to be His witness; not His accountant. Your work is to dig, to sow or to water, but God causes the growth.” He also cautions young pastors against putting their families before God.

As he enters his sixth decade of contending for the faith, Kulichev credits his longevity and enduring enthusiasm simply to the knowledge that his life belongs to Christ. “I have passed through temptations and trials like everyone else,” he reflects. “Some of them were serious, while others at first glance appeared innocent but were incompatible with the Christian life. At age 20, I was infatuated with one of my fellow university students—something completely normal. But that girl was not a believer. The only way to deal with these strong feelings was to seek God’s counsel. I prayed, ‘Lord, in order to serve you I must be obedient. I am weak; I need your strength and grace. Help me to keep myself pure and freed from these feelings.'” God fortified him, and Hristo met Tsvetanka five years later, in 1954. “I have been a target of ridicule from some…but God helped me protect my purity until marriage, and my faithfulness in marriage.” The couple celebrated their fiftieth golden wedding anniversary several years ago, surrounded by their children and grandchildren.

Whether preaching in the United States or in Bulgaria, Kulichev’s message is the same. He abhors the preaching of what he calls “an easy Christianity.” “People are coming to Christ for Him to heal their diseases and provide for them materially,” he said. “I am concerned about ‘Prosperity Christianity,’ which leads people to seek material rather than heavenly blessings.” While few may be called upon to go to prison, Kulichev fears that many believers are unprepared to accept suffering for Christ as a normal, even expected part of the Christian life. As the contemporary Bulgarian Church navigates the “free market” of spirituality, he also sees a growing need for discernment. “I am concerned about the great invasion of false doctrines and cults, although Christ Himself warned us that many will come in His name. I am also concerned about the warped charismatic spirit, which leads people astray from the true gospel by opening the gates of the Church to carnality.”

At age eighty-one, Kulichev shows no signs of slowing down. In March 2009, he organized a service commemorating the infamous Pastor’s Trial of 1949. The beloved patriarchal figure still preaches regularly, prints a monthly newsletter, and writes books (Heralds of the Truth: The History of the Evangelical Church in Bulgaria is available at Despite the demands of ministry, he advises pastors to avoid a performance-based mindset. “Don’t try to give God ‘the best,'” he said. “I saw a brochure with this title, but it is misleading. What we think of as ‘the best,’ God may consider worthless. God doesn’t want something from us. He wants us. He wants us to give Him ourselves.” Pastor Hristo likewise gives of himself to every individual who needs sustenance. During the week, he frequents First Evangelical’s soup kitchen and chats with both volunteers and recipients. While many of them are neither familiar with his eschatological views nor have they read his books, they recognize genuine compassion.

As Kulichev surveys the church’s development over the last half century, he hopes believers will learn from the past. “We are grateful to our forefathers who bore suffering, reproach and poverty to hand down the faith, once for all delivered to the Saints. May God strengthen us all to preserve this faith as good stewards. The hardships are like shadows from which no one can flee, but when we look upon Jesus as the sun in our life, then the shadow is behind us; we don’t see it. If we turn our back on the sun, the shadow moves in front of us and seems ominous.”

Friday, May 6th 2011

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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