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Korean Church Court Dodges Decision on Pastoral Succession

Denomination delays verdict on how Myungsung, the world’s largest Presbyterian church, passed its pulpit from father to son.
Korean Church Court Dodges Decision on Pastoral Succession
Image: Panoramio / Cho
Myungsung Presbyterian Church in Seoul, South Korea

The two-year saga embroiling the world’s largest Presbyterian church remained unresolved Tuesday, despite a scheduled ruling from the denomination’s court.

The court of the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PCK-Tonghap) failed to determine the legitimacy of the 2017 accession of Kim Ha-na as senior pastor of Myungsung Presbyterian Church, a 100,000-member congregation in Seoul founded by Kim’s father, Kim Sam-whan.

The 15-member court began with a morning service at the Korean Church Centennial Memorial Building in Seoul. PCK-Tonghap is the second-largest of more than 100 Korean Presbyterian denominations, with more than 2 million members and almost 20,000 pastors.

Although the decision was due by 6 p.m., and dozens of journalists and activists waited outside the meeting room, no ruling was released until 8:30 p.m.

About 7:30 p.m., two members of the court left the room, one saying, “There’s nothing to expect. We tried to make things right.” When the two doors to the meeting room opened an hour later, an emotional jostling between activists and court members ensued as students and church reformers poured into the meeting room, followed by journalists.

Activists and journalists pour into the room immediately following the conclusion of the PCK court's meeting.
Image: J. Y. Lee

Activists and journalists pour into the room immediately following the conclusion of the PCK court's meeting.

The PCK court head, Kang Heung-guk, declared a decision had been deferred to August 5, and apologized for failing to deliver on last month’s promise to announce a ruling on Myungsung on July 16. The court’s chief umpire, Oh Yang-hyun, added that the court is aware of the severity of the Myungsung case, and compared the gravitas of the current deliberations to the PCK court’s 1938 decision to condone Shinto worship during the Japanese colonization of Korea.

Dozens of students and activists had waited for more than 10 hours since the morning’s press conference held outside the building. Some students broke down in tears, while others expressed their frustration by blocking the narrow corridor outside the meeting room. Chants of “Repeal inheritance,” “Please save Korean churches,” and “Aren’t you ashamed to see students?” reverberated on the fourth floor.

Students and activists question a court member in the parking lot.
Image: J. Y. Lee

Students and activists question a court member in the parking lot.

Student activists followed Oh to the underground parking lot and questioned why the ruling was postponed. “I’m also ashamed that I’m a pastor today,” was Oh’s last words as he got into his car surrounded by students.

“Although some older generations sided with Myungsung, we witnessed the whole process and saw the hope within ourselves to rectify what is wrong,” said student council president Kim Joo-young, a senior at PCK Tonghap’s flagship seminary, Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary (PUTS).

This May, some 300 PUTS students and 20 professors marched three miles from PUTS to Myungsung to protest Kim Ha-na’s succession. In 2013, Kim Ha-na had told students in his seminar as their professor at PUTS that he would not become Myungsung’s senior pastor.

Kim Ha-na is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and a trustee on its board. This past Sunday, president Craig Barnes preached at two of Myungsung’s five Sunday services.

“It’s a wonderful honor to return here to be asked to preach again,” said Barnes, who joked that he has visited Myungsung more than his own church in Princeton. “I’m ready to apply to be a member here.” Barnes did not respond to requests for comment regarding Myungsung’s pastoral succession.

The crux of the debate has been Article 28.6 of the PCK-TongHap constitution, which prohibits the transference of pastor or elder positions to family members. Defenders have argued that Kim Ha-na was elected in accordance with Myungsung’s laws, and the denomination that Kim Sam-whan once headed should not meddle in the megachurch’s affairs. Critics have argued that the denomination’s flagship church is flouting the group laws it must heed.

In 1980, Kim Sam-whan founded Myungsung with 20 members. Today, the church’s footprint extend beyond its cavernous sanctuary with its choir of hundreds. The church owns and operates an evangelical television channel, two schools, the first and only private prison in Korea, and hospitals in Korea and Ethiopia. In 2014, the death by suicide of a Myungsung elder exposed real estate worth millions of dollars managed solely by the late elder and Kim Sam-whan.

The tension between Myungsung and its denomination will likely extend into September when PCK-Tonghap holds its 104th General Assembly in southeastern Korea, a stronghold for Myungsung supporters as Kim Sam-whan was born there and actively recruited pastors from his birth province. During last year’s assembly in southwestern Korea, hundreds of Myungsung members and hundreds of PUTS students held competing protests outside.

Today’s ruling on Myungsung received copious attention beyond Christian media. Many of South Korea’s largest broadcasters and newspapers including KBS, SBS, Joong-Ang Ilbo, and Yonhap reported on the delayed decision.

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