South Korean court rules against pastors’ sons inheriting church pulpits


Myungsung Presbyterian Church in Seoul (CT)

Myungsung Presbyterian Church in Seoul (CT)

Seoul: In a high-profile case that checked large churches with money and power, a tribunal in South Korea sent a strong message by nullifying the father-to-son succession of the Myunsung Presbyterian Church’s head pastor.

The court of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Churches in Korea (PCK-Tonghap), which includes the Myungsung Church, said this month that the practice was a violation of the ban of hereditary succession under the church’s constitution.

The court needed more than six hours of relay hearings to reach its verdict in the retrial of a lawsuit brought against the accession of Rev. Kim Ha-na as senior pastor of Myungsung Presbyterian Church, a 100,000-member congregation in Seoul founded by his father, Kim Sam-whan.

According to Christianity Today (CT), PCK-Tonghap is the second largest of more than 100 Korean Presbyterian denominations, with more than 2 million members and almost 20,000 pastors.

According to Yonhap news agency, the miraculous success story earned its founder, Rev. Kim Sam-hwan, a reputation as one of the most revered religious leaders, inspiring Christian pastors at home and abroad.

However, the 74-year-old pastor waded into controversy over his decision to name his eldest son, Rev. Kim Ha-na, 46, to succeed him, granting the younger Rev. Kim the last say in controlling the church’s massive finances.

Despite growing protest and opposition by the Christian community and civil society, the junior Kim took office in November in 2017 following his father’s retirement.

In a bid to reverse the decision, a group of opposing pastors filed a complaint with the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Korea, the Protestant denomination for Myungsung. They demanded a ruling over whether the succession is in violation of the denomination’s law banning the succession of a retiring pastor by a close family member, Yonhap added.

The Theological Education Committee of the denomination’s General Assembly last week ruled in favor of the succession, with eight of its 15-member panel voting to allow it.

The decision further fanned anger among the Christian community and civic groups and deepened the  fracture between the megachurch and its denomination.

Last month, the court failed to determine the legitimacy of the 2017 accession of Kim Ha-na. Chief Umpire Oh Yang-hyun said that the court was aware of the severity of the Myungsung case, and compared the gravitas of the deliberations to the PCK court’s 1938 decision to condone Shinto worship during the Japanese colonization of Korea.

According to CT, 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.

Critics have argued that the denomination’s flagship church is flouting the group laws it must heed. However, 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.

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.

Myungsung was founded in 1980 by Kim Sam-whan with only 20 members. Today, the church’s footprint extends 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, CT stressed.

According to Leadership Network’s current database, South Korea is home to three of the 10 largest Protestant churches in the world.

South Korea also has more than 15 “gigachurches” (ones with more than 20,000 members), the most in the world, followed by Nigeria and the Philippines.

Megachurch researcher Warren Bird said that one in 10 megachurches worldwide see their outgoing lead pastor succeeded by a family member.

The Alliance Against Church Inheritance, a Korean parachurch group, reports that since 2013, more than 140 Korean churches have handed their pulpits over to a family member of the senior pastor, CT reported.


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