Seen from the back of a high balcony, pastor Kim Sam-hwan cuts a small figure.
“Amen!” he calls into two microphones suspended on long wires from the ceiling above.
“Allelujah!” responds his flock of five thousand.
“Allelujah!” he counters.
“Amen!” they roar.
If Kim appears tiny, it’s only because the church he has built around himself is enormous. Myungsung Presbyterian Church rises from the suburbs of eastern Seoul, an architectural cacophony of Western-style twin-spired brick ecclesiasticism and glass-façaded convention center chic. Inside, the auditorium is bigger than most theaters you’ll ever visit. Huge screens on each side of the altar and a studio-grade mixing desk amplify the spectacle. In the foyer outside, elevators transport the faithful from one floor to another.
But in and outside the church walls, a scandal is brewing. Myungsung Church, which counts tens of thousands of members, is the latest South Korean so-called megachurch to embroil itself in a scandal of hereditary pastorship succession: Kim Sam-hwan is attempting to pass on the church to his son, and not everybody’s happy about it. Many South Korean Protestants regard the issue as one that threatens the very survival of their church.
On Apr. 25 at 8:30 a.m., a white-haired man in a gray suit stood in the small road between Myungsung Church and a Hyundai apartment complex. In his left hand was a large plastic sign reading:
In his right hand was a GoPro camera on a monopod.
He was Heo Gi-yeong, a deacon at Sarang Church, another megachurch in southern Seoul.
Heo had come to Myungsung Church because its presbytery was holding a meeting that morning. Besuited Myungsung officials circled nearby. One walked over and stood right in front of Heo’s picket, staring him down and blocking his message. A few meters away, an elderly church official with a yellow tie paced up and down, shouting at Heo.
On the other side of the car park was a row of demonstrators from Protest 2002, a campaign group that aims to eliminate church greed and corruption. Church officials began remonstrating with the new protesters; tempers frayed and a series of scuffles occurred. The police appeared and tried to calm everyone down. Insults flew, and the church official in the yellow tie almost ended up in a fist fight. From back outside the apartment complex came a sound of crunching plastic: Heo’s picket had been snatched away and stamped on. He spent the next 15 minutes angrily trying to get it back.
So how did it get to this?
Myungsung Presbyterian Church was established in 1980, when pastor Kim Sam-hwan held a service for a congregation of 20 on the second floor of a shop building in the fledgling suburban neighborhood of Myeongil-dong, Seoul.
Since then, it has grown into one of South Korea’s renowned megachurches, complete with imposing buildings, a huge congregation, a powerful pastor and a miasma of rumored scandals. Its finances are largely generated by the tithe system observed by members.
The 1970s and 1980s provided fertile ground for megachurch cultivation. South Korea’s industrialization was accompanied by rapid rural to urban migration. New suburbs mushroomed around Seoul’s edges, offering large numbers of potential congregants for churches that could attract them. And attract them they did, by providing a sense of community for urban migrants uprooted from rural hometowns.
Competition to conquer newly built neighborhoods helped fuel megachurches’ appetite for land on which they erected churches as large and grand as possible. Several megachurches expanded their scope by establishing hospitals, schools, newspapers, radio stations, charitable organizations and more, a multi-tentacled approach that some have likened to the business models of South Korea’s famous chaebol (family-run corporate conglomerates).
South Korea’s Protestant population stood at about one million in the early 1960s, just before the country began its fabled spurt of industrialization. It then began more than doubling each decade, reaching five million in 1980 and 8.7 million in 1995. Megachurches were at the heart of this breakneck growth: South Korea is home to the world’s largest church by number of congregants (Yoido Full Gospel Church) and several others in the global top ten.
Time for a new pastor
Most of the pastors that cultivated their churches in South Korea’s boom years are now near or past retirement age. For successors, many of them turn to their own sons. Though the first recorded instance of hereditary pastoral succession (HPS) was at Dorim Church in 1973, the practice began accelerating in the 1990s, then took off around 2000. By 2014, anti-HPS campaign group Protest 2002 listed 95 cases of HPS, mostly in Seoul and the greater metropolitan region. By 2017, the number of cases flagged had risen to 122.
According to South Korea’s basic principle of separation of state and religion, there are few laws limiting religious practice. HPS is perfectly legal. But several major Protestant church associations have banned the practice by member churches. In 2012, the Korean Methodist Church, a nationwide Methodist association, voted to prohibit HPS among its member churches. Several others followed; the Presbyterian Church of Korea, a major Presbyterian association that counts Myungsung among its members, changed its own regulations to ban HPS in 2013.
But this hasn’t stopped pastors who are determined to keep it in the family. So many ways of sidestepping the ban exist that Protest 2002 offers a helpful roundup of them in its 2014 pamphlet, Guide for Christians Opposing Hereditary Pastoral Succession. These include “merger” HPS, when a pastor and his son merge their respective churches; “stepping stone” or “cushion” HPS, when another pastor is temporarily appointed between father and son to avoid direct succession; and “swap” HPS, when two pastors appoint each other’s sons as successors, effectively trading churches between families.
Myungsung Church seems to have gone with the merger option. In 2014, it established Newsong Myungsung Church in Hanam, Gyeonggi Province and appointed Kim Ha-na as the new church’s senior pastor. Sure enough, on Mar. 19 this year, an assembly of the church voted to merge Newsong and the original Myungsung, with Kim Ha-na as senior pastor. Effectively, Myungsung Church will have passed from father to son.
Why does HPS happen so much in South Korea? Kim Ae-hee, director of Protest 2002, believes cultural factors that pre-date the arrival of Christianity in the country play a significant role.
“There are lots of deeply-rooted Confucian sentiments in the [South Korean] church,” she said. “There’s a very strong hierarchical order and many churches are dominated by their pastor.
“In some cases blood relatives are seen as legitimate heirs of the spiritual authority of the pastor. You could regard this as premodern, but it’s deeply rooted in the sentiments of some churchgoers. The pastor is like the patriarch of the family, so you’re not supposed to oppose his will. If you do, it’s seen as being hostile to God.”
Congregants at Myungsung Church acquiesced to Kim Sam-hwan because they had been taught to do so for a long time, Kim said, describing the phenomenon as a kind of “conditioned behavior.”
“Kim Sam-hwan will say things like, ‘The pastor’s word is the word of God. You have to obey. Anyone who opposes the church is Satan; a heretic,’” Kim added.
HPS appears relatively rare in other countries, though cases have been noted in Nigeria, a country also known for its powerful megachurches, and megachurches in the United States such as Lakewood and Crystal Cathedral.
On Mar. 18, the day before Myungsung Church approved its merger with Newsong, several student associations at Seoul’s Presbyterian University and Theological Seminar (PUTS) issued a statement slamming the move.
Titled “This is not what we were taught,” the statement begs Myungsung Church not to go ahead with the hereditary succession.
“The church aims to make God’s land on this earth,” said Yoon Gwan, chairman of Seo-lo Students’ Union at PUTS, one of the groups that signed the statement. “There’s supposed to be harmony, with lions and lambs playing together, and the church is the community that should make this possible. So the church has to maintain its social standing, but people are starting to condemn it because of hereditary succession.”
Yoon does not attend Myungsung but claims to have a friend who does, and who is deeply uncomfortable with the current situation. (Kim Ae-hee of Protest 2002 also told Korea Exposé that her office receives multiple supportive phone calls from disgruntled Myungsung congregants every day.)
Comparing Myungsung’s behavior to that of a large conglomerate, Yoon alludes to rumors that the church’s HPS project may be aimed at covering up large-scale financial malfeasance by the Kim family, involving a slush fund.
In January this year, Seoul Eastern District Court effectively confirmed rumors of Kim Sam-hwan’s 80 billion won slush fund. A judge found journalists who had been sued for libel by Kim for reporting the suspicions not guilty (Kim himself was fined eight million won by the court during the trial for twice refusing a witness summons.)
“This is just part of the bigger picture,” Yoon says. “Ultimately, it’s about the ethics of the church.”
HPS often provokes division and factionalism within churches. Son Ji-eun, who works for an academic publisher in Seoul, recalled leaving her own medium-sized church after 21 years when the pastor’s HPS plan created factional strife. “Even the deaconess group my mother was in split into two factions,” she said.
As part of the dispute, the anti-HPS faction accused the pastor of sexual harassment. He was found not guilty by a court, but left with irreparable damage to his reputation nonetheless. The pastor’s son eventually took over the church, which was renamed. The experience left Son feeling sad and angry, she said.
For sons placed in line to take over their fathers’ churches, refusal is not always easy.
“If you are a pastor’s kid and have an Mdiv [Master of Divinity degree] you may receive pressure from your parents and/or church elders or deacons to follow in the footsteps of your father,” said Suh Myung-sahm, a scholar of Korean Christianity whose own father is a pastor. “Personally, I think it all sounds ridiculous. Since I started studying sociology of religion, I have become somewhat cynical about this game of ‘holy throne.’
“I have no strong passion for ministry. So I have chosen not to be ordained. And I have told my parents and other church members that I have no intention to take over my father’s position… But there are people who still expect me to take over the church.”
Some doubt, too, whether Kim Ha-na really wants to inherit Myungsung Church from his father. The younger Kim is on record as having expressed opposition to the merger. But Yoon of Seo-lo Students’ Union speculates that he may also feel obliged to inherit the church in order to protect his father, if putting an outsider in charge would expose wrongdoing within the church.
Back outside Myungsung, the church official in the yellow tie had withdrawn from the protest line and seemed to have calmed down.
“It’s not their church,” he said of the protesters. “Hereditary pastoral succession is our will. It’s God’s will. Other big churches are doing it.”
It was church officials’ aggressive reaction to Heo Gi-yeong’s solitary protest earlier that morning that created a spectacle. The police turned up. The media — albeit just a couple of cameras — filmed everything.
If they had just ignored him, perhaps Heo would have gone largely unnoticed.