On Monday, the Christian anti-hunger advocacy organization Bread for the World announced that Eugene Cho would be its next president. Cho is most well-known the founder of Seattle’s Quest Church and the nonprofit One Days Wages. He’s also the latest Korean American Christian male leader to assume a top spot in an evangelical organization.
In 2013, Michael Oh became the global executive director/CEO of Lausanne. In 2015, Joel Kim became the president of Westminster Seminary California. In 2017, Alexander Jun was elected moderator of the 45th General Assembly for the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Last year, PCA pastor Walter Kim became the president of the National Association of Evangelicals and Julius Kim became the president of The Gospel Coalition.
Paul Lim, associate professor of the history of Christianity at Vanderbilt Divinity School joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and news editor Daniel Silliman on Quick to Listen to discuss whether more Korean Americans in leadership will lead to greater cultural representation overall, the long relationship between Presbyterianism and Koreans, and what the church at large can learn from Korean Americans.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #203
What is the relationship between Korean evangelicals and evangelical identity? Is that a comfortable fit? How do you feel about the term evangelical?
Paul Lim: Since you’re asking me personally, I think I would probably regard myself more as a progressive evangelical.
The term evangelia comes from the word good news and also, as my own studies have indicated, the word evangelical was used to describe those who are seeking to reform the church in the late medieval context and also describing the global spread of Orthodox Christianity in the last two or three centuries. And many of them would own the label evangelical, though not necessarily according to the American dictates and tastes—although the two are inextricably connected together.
For some Korean Christians, that word evangelical would be an accurate and comfortable fit. For others, I don’t think it will be. Although to be fair, all the names mentioned [in the intro] would use the word evangelical, with some qualifications and provisos as well.
Many white evangelicals first encountered the Korean community through adoption that began in the wake of the Korean War. How did this initial introduction affect the relationship and how has it played out to this day?
Paul Lim: Shout out to a very, very fine scholar, Helen Kim at Emory University. She’s done real good work on the post-1950s relationship between America and Korea, especially the politics of religion and adoption and World Vision, which is now a mammoth of global aid organizations that started out as a way to help the blind orphans of South Korea.
I do think that the relationship goes back further than that with the history of foreign missions from the US. I do think that one of the positives of that is the introduction of a particular kind of Christianity, which is Protestant and Reformed/Presbyterian, though Methodists certainly had a big role to play. And the negative upshot of that is that it started sort of an imperial/neocolonial relationality between American Christianity and Korean Christianity.
Also, I happen to live in Nashville, which means that when I go to a church where there are some kids who look like me, many of them are adopted. And so I think it does raise some really interesting questions about the theology of adoption, the practice of it, and how it, unfortunately in some ways, if not done well, creates a sort of a master-servant narrative and modality that I don’t think is that helpful in our full, gospel-centered human flourishing.
Do you think that adoption changed how white evangelicals saw Asian Americans overall, but particularly Korean Americans?
Paul Lim: I’m not really sure.
I think that’s one way of looking at it, right? That there are these individuals that needed rescue from their homeland. And so I think that it does give you a sense of being a benefactor or kinsman-redeemer or something like that.
I had a graduate student who’s a pastor of a PCA church in Charlotte, North Carolina, committed to racial reconciliation. He adopted a couple of African American children. He hadn’t realized the extent to which a white messiah complex would play a role in the way that he would interact with people until he adopted these two children. And not that he was going to undo the adoption, but he said it made him realize the darker recesses of his own heart that you’re not even aware of.
So I think if you think about the totality of the individuals who have adopted, and who are not as thoughtful or conscientious as him, then it does present a perspective or attitude toward some people that you may unwittingly think are inferior to you or indebted to you because “we brought the gospel to you” and so on.
There’s a very fine movie called Susanne Brink’s Arirang. And it’s about a woman who was adopted to Sweden—which is another very, very popular country for early adoptions out of South Korea. And I think there are a lot of these kinds of works that are done by a lot of Korean NGOs and Korean-American NGOs, including many churches, to really bring healing and comfort and solace to those who in their lifelong kind of journey of adoption may have forgotten their mother tongue, forgotten their birth parents, and so on. And I think it brings a lot of interesting questions about their identity—not only ethnic and cultural identity but also religious identity.
What are some hallmarks of Korean-American churches? What kind of theology do they tend to teach? What are their strengths and what are their blind spots?
Paul Lim: By and large, most Korean American churches tend to be more orthodox in their theology. Politically, they are both conservative and progressive. I think on matters about immigration, they tended to be much more open-minded and progressive on that. But with regard to other matters, I think more holistically with the whole issue of social justice, I don’t think they were as forward-thinking on that.
Because of their adoption of a lot of conservative evangelical theology, the place of women in the church has often been relegated to pastors’ wives or deaconesses, or they’re much more relegated to life in the kitchen or dining halls rather than behind the pulpit. And I don’t think it’s just endemic to Korean American Christianity. I think a lot of conservative Christianity, whether white or Hispanic or black or Asian, would have that kind of tendency too. I think, with the commitment to Biblical infallibility or even inerrancy—that’s the shibboleth that would often try to put women in their place.
Also, one of the positive aspects that must be mentioned is that they are really, really focused on evangelism, the hospitality ministry, and also really big on-campus ministry. Of the individuals mentioned earlier [in the intro], a lot of them were involved in campus ministries or came to know Jesus much more through their college work and life. So I think that’s important to recognize too.
The majority of Korean Americans came to the US after 1965 when the US changed its immigration laws, and the two big Presbyterian denominations today are the PCA and the PCUSA, both which started after 1965. It seems that Presbyterianism is a part of a lot of Korean American churches. Is there a connection there? Are the Korean American churches a part of those denominations or do they have their own denominations?
Paul Lim: Yes, there are a lot of Korean Americans in both PCUSA and PCA, as well as in their cognate or sister denominations.
So I have had a somewhat interesting journey in my own life. I became a Christian as a junior at Yale, having not really grown up in the church much prior to that. And then I was really involved with the campus ministry, and I ended up going to a conservative seminary for my MDiv degree. And then I went to Princeton Seminary for my ThM degree. And I realized that the two sides were really at loggerheads. They really didn’t like each other. There was a lot of mischaracterization or misrepresentation. It seems that unfortunately many Korean Americans also fell in line with that particular, pernicious tendency of not speaking well of our neighbor. And I think that the conservatives and the liberals are equally at fault, having been on both sides.
And then I finished my degree in England, was at Gordon-Conwell for five years, and then the last 14 years I’ve been at Vanderbilt Divinity School. So two very different schools—one evangelical, the other definitely not. In a very kind of a similar way, I think there is a sort of a downplaying of the merit-worthiness of the other side.
I think there is an increasing number of people who are trying to do a little bit better. And I do think that there is much to learn from the other side. If I’m a PC person, I have to recognize that my PCUSA sisters and brothers have much to teach me. And if I’m in a PCUSA church, then I should also know is that my sisters and brothers in the PCA might have something to teach me as well. That acknowledgment of epistemic humility is not seen among whites or Asians or other ethnicities and races because we lock ourselves up in our echo chambers.