Women in Christianity: A Look into Korea’s Church Leadership – Yejin Son

Yejin Son

Human Asia Intern

(Image: Members of Chongshin Unversity’s Women’s Association calling for the permission of female pastors in front of the joint general meeting of the Yejang denomination, 2017. Credit: Voice of the People)

As a seemingly mono-ethnic, secular nation that upholds the freedom to practice all religions in the constitutional, societal, and individual level, it is surprising that more than half (56.1%) of the Korean population chooses not to have one.[1] According to the 2015 National Census of Demographics, there is no “majority religion”, as the remaining population that has a religion is almost equally made up of Buddhists and Christians. Yet this fact is almost invisible when one looks at Korea’s night sky filled with red neon crosses symbolizing the ubiquitous presence of churches. Although Protestant Christianity does not make up the population’s majority, its ideals, influence, and culture are embedded in Korean society and its constituents.

Christianity in Korea is characterized by dominating church denominations across the country with clear regional and ideological variances. Some of the most influential denominations include The Presbyterian Church of Korea (Tonghap), Presbyterian Church in Korea (HapDong), The Kosin Presbyterian Church in Korea, and the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (KiJang).[2] Denominations are generally operated like a political party, with a clear leadership and decision-making body that branches over their affiliated churches. Most denominations also own Christian newspaper agencies, social welfare foundations, and other affiliated organizations such as seminaries and universities.[3]

However, the overarching church denomination system operated by hierarchical, bureaucratic principles provide extremely limited opportunities and participation of women. Applying certain scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 14:34* and 1 Timothy 2:12** quite literally to church practices, conservative denominations such as Kosin, Hapsin, and Daesin systematically prevent their ministers to be female. [4]

* Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. (1 Corinthians 14:34, NIV)

** I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. (1 Timothy 2:12, NIV)

Churches under these denominations openly refuse female pastors by policy or demand a military certificate for a minister’s ordination. [5] As Korea requires only male citizens to perform the mandatory military service, such procedural limitations create a glass ceiling that blocks women from climbing the leadership ladder within their denominations and churches. Under this ceiling, qualified female religious workers can only hold duties as “evangelists” who recruit and work with the general church assembly. [6] As evangelists, their positions are subject to the discretion of the denomination’s leadership without secure legal guarantees of membership.

On the other hand, denominations such as HapDong have allowed for female pastors to join their ministries. HapDong holds ordination ceremonies twice a year, in which around 150 to 200 new female pastors are appointed, and other denominations such as The General Assembly of Presbyterian Churches in Korea have contributed to the growing number of female pastors, reaching 10,000 in 2019. [7] However, female pastors are still a minority as there is only one female pastor for every nine male pastors in Korea. Women who have been ordained as pastors in such denominations are given positions that are locked in traditional gender roles such as preaching to young children or being placed in the peripheral leadership receiving much less pay. [8] Such limiting practices and gendered expectations of female pastors ultimately lead to the denominations’ core authorities to be mostly, if not entirely, male.

The lack of female pastors in the church is interrelated to the lack of female students and faculty in Theological Seminaries. Although obtaining a degree from seminaries is a necessary prerequisite for one to become a pastor, Theological Seminaries are heavily influenced by the ideologies of partnering denominations that openly express gender biased views. Thus gender discrimination against women often occurs in the application process conducted by predominantly male administrators and admissions committees. [9] This leads to a serious shortage of female experts and faculty in the theological field, reinforcing the peripheral influence women hold in Korean churches.

The presence of male-oriented leadership circles within Korean churches are detrimental to the protection of female attendees from sexual harassment or assault within the church community. Misusing the “spiritual superiority” as pastors or church executives, some male church leaders have gotten away with minimal consequences after sexually harassing female churchgoers.

In May 2018, Pastor Kim from the Incheon New Hope Church was accused of sexually assaulting 4 female churchgoers, 3 of whom were underage. [10] Instead of conducting an internal investigation, the church offered counseling to Pastor Kim, while accusing the victims of deliberately damaging the church’s reputation and bringing shame to the church. [11] Similarly, Pastor Jeon Byung-wook from Samil Church was “suspended” instead of being “dismissed” from his position as a pastor even though the Court sentenced him three years of prison for sexually harassing a female church attendee. [12] Although Pastor Jeon was asked to leave Samil Church, he received around 1.3 billion Korean Won as a parting gift, and continues to preach at Hongik University New Church. [13] According to the 2016 survey by the Christianity Anti-Sexual Violence Center, out of the 31 cases of sexual harassment by pastors reported in the media, only 5 pastors were dismissed from their positions. [14] As long as a pastor is not officially dismissed, the pastor can resume his or her role in another church.

Ironically, such practices occur under the “freedom of religion” guaranteed by the Korean Constitution. [15] This freedom also applies to a religion’s appointment of clergy, as the 1981 Declaration of the UN General Assembly states that the right to freedom of religion or belief includes the freedom “to train, appoint, elect or designate by succession appropriate leaders” for religious communities and institutions. [16] When apparent gender discrimination occurs in the appointment of leaders within a religion, this freedom ultimately clashes with the right of women to recognize, enjoy, and exercise the same fundamental freedoms as men in the “political, economic, social, cultural, civil” fields. [17] To nullify the widespread misuse of religious freedoms against women from this clash, religious freedom should be redefined and understood as the freedom for an individual to influence and make decisions within the religion one belongs to, as opposed to the freedom to protect religious traditions as a whole.

The absence of an effective, transparent mechanism to keep sexual harassers accountable within Korean churches will continue to place female churchgoers in unsafe spaces of worship and prayer. Although Christianity has rooted as a popular, foundational religion for many Koreans today, women are left without representation, protection, and support necessary to become equal and active members of the Christian community. According to the Bible, the church is defined as the body of Christ, with each individual member serving their respective roles to create a co-dependent whole (1 Corinthians 12:27). In this whole, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NIV). Following this principle, Korean church dominations must redefine their traditional gender-based roles designated for women, and allow each member to choose how they can best serve the community by their own choice, talent, and ability.

 

Sources

[1] “2018 Status of Religion in Korea,” Religious Affairs, Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, Jan. 14, 2019,

https://www.mcst.go.kr/kor/s_policy/dept/deptView.jsp?pSeq=1731&pDataCD=0406000000&pType=03

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Youngdae Yoo, “10,000 Female Pastors Era…Continuous Glass Ceiling“ Kukmin Ilbo, Feb. 15, 2019,

http://m.kmib.co.kr/view.asp?arcid=0924061340

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Seulgi Jang, “Still No

Women Pastors “I Felt Like Believing in a Male God”,” Media Today, May 1, 2019,

http://www.mediatoday.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=148199

[9] Ibid.

[10] Seung-hyun Choi, “‘Grooming Sexual Violence’ Incheon New Hope Church Pastor Kim’s Court Trial Begins, “Denying All Charges, Consensual Relationship,” Newsnjoy, June 12, 2020,

http://www.newsnjoy.or.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=300823

[11] Seung-hyun Choi, “Yejang-HapDong Influential Minister, Pastor Son‘s “Sexual Delinquency” Suspected of Protection: Inappropriate Relationships with Several Young Church Members at the Same Time,“ Newsnjoy, May 28, 2018,

http://www.newsnjoy.or.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=217874

[12] Juneyong Park, “Exemption of Sexual Violence Pastors…A Church Trial of their Own,” The Hankyoreh, March 8, 2019,

http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/society/society_general/885062.html

[13] Seulgi Jang, “Still No Women Pastors “I Felt Like Believing in a Male God”,“ Media Today, May 1, 2019,

http://www.mediatoday.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=148199

[14] Juneyong Park, “Exemption of Sexual Violence Pastors…A Church Trial of their Own,” The Hankyoreh, March 8, 2019,

http://www.hani.co.kr/arti/society/society_general/885062.html

[15] “Constitution of the Republic of Korea,” Korea Legislation Research Institute, http://www.law.go.kr/lsInfoP.do?lsiSeq=61603&urlMode=engLsInfoR&viewCls=engLsInfoR#0000

[16] “International standards on freedom of religion or belief,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner,

https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/freedomreligion/pages/standards.aspx#9

[17] “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women,” United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 3, 1981, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ProfessionalInterest/cedaw.pdf

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