Father-son succession riles church community

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Father-son succession riles church community


Opponents of the Myungsung Presbyterian Church’s father-son succession protest outside the church in Myeongil-dong, eastern Seoul. [COURTESY OF THE PORTESTERS]

What started as a humble congregation of 20 Christians in the outskirts of Seoul 40 years ago has now grown into one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the world.

The Myungsung Presbyterian Church stands on tens of thousands of square meters of land in the far reaches of eastern Seoul. It boasts a membership of 100,000 and has schools and hospitals under its wing. The miraculous success story earned its founder, Rev. Kim Sam-hwan, a reputation as one of the world’s most revered religious leaders, inspiring Christian pastors at home and abroad.

But the pastor has suffered a precipitous fall from grace amid controversy over his decision to name his eldest son, Rev. Kim Ha-na, to succeed him, granting the younger Kim final say in managing the church’s massive finances. Despite growing protest and opposition from the Christian and secular community, Kim Ha-na took office in November 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. They demanded a ruling on whether the succession violates the denomination’s rule banning succession of a retiring pastor by a close family member.

The Theological Education Committee of the denomination’s General Assembly ruled in favor of the succession last week, with eight of its 15 members voting to allow it. But rather than ending the row, the decision fanned further anger among the Christian community and civic groups.

“The General Assembly law prohibiting family succession became null and void with the decision,” a nationwide association of Protestant pastors said in a statement.

The group called on the denomination to reverse its ruling in an upcoming plenary session in September.

“The General Assembly should clearly decide in its September meeting whether it will recover its honor as the biggest Christian denomination or opt for the benefit of its finances,” the group said.

The head pastor of the prominent Somang Presbyterian Church, Rev. Kim Jie-chul, criticized the committee’s decision in a statement addressed to the senior Kim last week.

“Rev. Kim Sam-hwan, I want you to leave the denomination,” he wrote. “That will be the only way the Korean Christian church and denomination can recover their reputation and the only way theology students can come back to life.”

Despite growing criticism, the Kims remain adamant about the succession. Addressing a congregation on Sunday after the ruling, the pastors celebrated the Theological Education Committee’s decision and gave words of thanks to their supporters.

“Because I have eyes and ears and I am not a shameless man, I feel hurt, troubled and sorry [about the situation],” Rev. Kim Ha-na said in his sermon.

“People in and outside the church have feelings of doubt and denouncement ... but such doubt and criticism can become an opportunity for us to resort back to God,” he said, dismissing calls for his resignation.

The confrontation risks further dividing the Christian community and sending it into greater disarray. The opposing seven members of the committee offered to resign after its ruling in favor of the father-son succession.

The CLF, a group comprising 500 Christian attorneys, joined the campaign against Myungsung Presbyterian Church this week and questioned the legality of the succession process. Student and faculty groups from the denomination’s Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary called for disciplinary action and vowed to fight to the end.

Some opponents are now considering the drastic move of bringing the issue to secular court.

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