Church wrestles over father-son succession

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Church wrestles over father-son succession

The leaders of Korea’s largest Presbyterian denomination met on Thursday to review a controversial decision by the church to allow a pastor in Seoul to pass on the role to his son.

Rev. Kim Sam-hwan, founder of the influential Myungsung Presbyterian Church, defied the denomination’s rules last November when he tapped his son, Rev. Kim Ha-na, to take over the church. Housed in a palatial building that spans tens of thousands of square meters in eastern Seoul, Myungsung is the largest Presbyterian church in Korea. With a membership of over 100,000 and a treasury that some churchgoers say exceeds several hundred billion won, the church operates dozens of medical centers and schools under its wing.

The elder Kim, who built the mammoth enterprise from a humble congregation of 20 people four decades ago, is globally recognized as a religious leader, but he is also no stranger to controversy, having been accused of possessing a slush fund of over 80 billion won and once referring to the Sewol ferry sinking as God’s warning to Korea for its sins.

Few were surprised when he put his son in charge of a separate church that ultimately merged with Myungsung, but the power play enraged members of the Presbyterian Church of Korea’s Tonghap denomination. Opposing pastors filed a complaint with the General Assembly, arguing that the move flaunted Tonghap’s rules, which ban family succession to prevent cults of personality. Churchgoers have even staged protests outside the Myungsung Presbyterian Church in Myeongil-dong.

Last month, the General Assembly’s Theological Education Committee stepped in to adjudicate the dispute. Eight of the 15 members ruled in favor of the Kims, saying the succession was valid since Rev. Kim Sam-hwan had already retired when the two churches were united and its elders democratically chose to ordain the younger Kim as their new pastor.

The ruling only fanned the flames in the Presbyterian Church, with theologians and pastors of other major churches openly criticizing the decision and calling for the Kims to leave the denomination. The seven members of the committee who opposed the decision tendered their resignations in protest.

With talks of yet another schism looming, over 1,300 members of the General Assembly convened on Thursday at a church in Iksan, North Jeolla, and appointed a 15-member committee to review the earlier decision.

Observers of the church say this new committee will likely overturn the succession decision and force Rev. Kim Ha-na to step down, lest the church sever its relationship with Tonghap, the Presbyterian Church of Korea’s largest denomination with 2.1 million members.

The Myungsung Presbyterian Church immediately spoke out against Thursday’s decision to form a new committee. A spokesman for the church said the General Assembly had no right to undo an already adjudicated ruling, but the church would nonetheless wait for a final ruling before deciding on any course of action.

The decision will likely affect the practice of family succession at other churches in the country, where the phenomenon is particularly prevalent at smaller institutions.

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