Life as Sagyeonghoe: An Excerpt from Living in the Underground Church

(Tonight I finished writing the introduction to Living in the Underground Church, the third volume of our Underground Church series. The book is due out in November, but I’m eager to share this excerpt with you. You can find Volume 1 of the series, Preparing for the Underground Churchand Volume 2, Planting the Underground Church, on Amazon or directly through VOMK. But for now, Volume 3 exists only on my computer and in this excerpt!)


In many ways it could be said that for Christianity to continue to survive and advance into the next, more hostile and restrictive generation in Korea, it must return to the practices of the very first generation of Korean Christians. Here I am not referring to the generation of Korean Christians who emerged from the Great Pyongyang Revival of 1907. Instead, I am referring to that generation of Korean Christians from whom the Great Pyongyang Revival emerged: The Korean Christians of 1873 through 1906.[1]

Much is known about this first generation of Korean Christians by historians, but little of it is taught to ordinary Korean Christians today, and, grievously, almost none of it is held up for emulation by Korean churches, missionaries, or Christians. Yet the life and practice of this first generation of Korean Christians were so transformative, so unprecedented in modern Christian history, that they were the focus of books and articles and study in America and Europe well before the Pyongyang Revival ever happened.

This book is not the history of this pioneer generation, though it contains some of their stories in order to help us reclaim and recover that original form of Korean Christianity—a Christianity without ordained pastors or pulpits or church buildings or denominations or money or legal standing or government permission or public acceptance.

Instead, the focus of this book is what was the focus of their Christianity: The Bible.

So focused were the first generation of Korean Christians on the Bible that their religion was described by the newly-arrived foreign missionaries as “bible Christianity”.[2] The first Korean Christians were not the converts of those foreign missionaries. Instead, they had been converted by the Bibles they read and the Korean colporteurs who smuggled them in—colporteurs who were new converts to Christianity themselves.

These first generation Korean Christians did not simply read the Bible as one of many Christian activities in their life. Reading the Bible was their life. For them, sagyeonghoe (bible examination meeting) was not a special annual event led by a pastor or distinguished guest speaker. It was a daily event engaged in by each Korean Christian as they attempted to make their way through this “strange new world of the Bible” they had entered. As Korean church historians Sebastian Kim and Kirsteen Kim explain,

Once Korean Christians accepted the Bible as their sacred text, it was reverenced as the authority above others. Students read it in the Confucian manner; aloud, memorizing texts and reciting them, and then following its teaching literally in daily ethics, moral conduct, and matters of socio-political principle. People accepted the texts as authoritative, without critical evaluation or consideration of their validity in the context of Korea.[3]

What does it mean to be a Christian living in the underground church? It means that life becomes sagyeonghoe. It means that as we read the Bible in the place we currently live, among the people we currently know, we awake from our sleep like Jacob and say with him, “Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.”[4] It means that we read aloud, memorizing the Bible texts and reciting them, and then following their teaching literally in daily ethics, moral conduct, and matters of socio-political principle. It means that we accept the texts as authoritative, without critical evaluation or consideration of their validity in the context of Korea. It means that we undertake this single task as the length and breadth of our Christian life, with the same intensity, focus, abandonment, and allegiance to God as did the earliest Korean Christians.

The purpose of this book is to provide a simple method for living that life, which, as we will see, always leads one perpendicular to the world and thus, inevitably, underground. The method laid out here is not one especially drawn from the first generation of Korean Christians or even from underground Christians. In fact, Bible reading methods that are particular to a time or a place or a people or a pastor are rightly suspect. A Bible reading method should do nothing more or less than place us in the proper relation to the text and its Triune God. From that point, as Karl Barth says, “There is a river…”

There is a spirit in the Bible that allows us to stop awhile and play among secondary things as is our wont – but presently it begins to press us on; and however we may object that we are only weak, imperfect, and most average folk, it presses us on to the primary fact, whether we will or no. There is a river in the Bible that carries us away, once we have entrusted our destiny to it—away from ourselves to the sea.[5]


Action Step

What can I do today to put into practice serving and learning from our persecuted brothers and sisters?

For the earliest Korean Christians, the Bible was not only theologically central to their faith, but practically central to their lives. Spend time to read your Bible every day and, when you read, think about how you can adapt your everyday life to the “strange new world of the Bible.”


[1] 1873 is the year Missionary John Ross began to sell Chinese language Christian books at the Corea Gate. See J. Ross, Mission Methods in Manchuria. London: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1903, p. 17.

[2] BFBS (British and Foreign Bible Society), The Leaves of the Tree: A Popular Illustrated Report of the British and Foreign Bible Society for the Year, 1906-1907. London: Bible House, 1907, p. 70.

[3] S.C.H. Kim and K. Kim, A History of Korean Christianity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 87-88.

[4] Genesis 28:16, KJV.

[5] K. Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith Publisher, Inc., 1978, p. 34.

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The Three Circumstances In Which The Church Is Obligated to Go Underground

John Calvin identified two marks of the true church: “the word of God purely preached and heard, and the pure administration of the sacraments.”[36]

The only legitimate reason to take the church underground, then, is to overcome any hindrance to the word of God being purely preached and heard, and the sacraments purely administered.

  • When the government determines who may preach, what may be preached, or where preaching may take place, the church is obligated to operate underground rather than accommodate the restrictions.
  • When the government or the general public restrain the free hearing of the gospel, the church is obligated to go underground rather than accommodate the restrictions.
  • When the pure administration of the sacraments is impaired, the church is obligated to go underground rather than accommodate the restrictions.

Let us consider an increasingly common example. Suppose a government permits the church “freedom of religion”: they may preach and hear the word and participate in the sacraments, but only inside buildings officially registered with the government. Is the church obligated to go underground?

Yes, the church is obligated to go underground because in such a situation the word and the sacraments are no longer able to be purely preached, heard, or administered almost anywhere in that society. In such a situation the church goes underground not so it can preach and hear and participate in the sacraments only in a small secret cave or in a clearing in the middle of a forest. (This is the stereotype of the underground church.) Instead, it goes underground so the word and the sacraments may not be bound, in faithfulness to the truth of 2 Timothy 2:9. (For the Christian, truth is defined by the scripture, not the government or the general public. The scripture says that the word is not bound, and the church believes this even when the government insists otherwise.) Since the word and sacraments are not bound, then the Lord will lead the church to many places outside the church building where he desires that these means of grace be shared.

Let us consider another example. Suppose a government enacts laws criminalizing statements against homosexuality in public places or media, including Christian teaching that homosexuality is a sin. The government assures the church it can still do whatever it wants in its own building. Is the church obligated to go underground?

Yes, the church is obligated to go underground because once again there is an attempt to bind the word. The church is the servant of the word and the sacraments; the word and the sacraments are not servants of the church. This means that the church must serve the word wherever the Lord wants the word to be heard. The Lord does not respect the world’s boundaries of where, when, and by whom he may send his word, nor to whom he may send it. He has overcome the world, not simply acquired real estate in it.

The church in the free world, however, is prone to accept restrictions like these from the government, rather than go underground. The church says, “Our congregation is still able to preach and hear the word and administer the sacraments; it is not necessary for us to go underground.” But this attitude makes the church Lord, and the Lord, servant. The church in this case is like the fool in the Lord’s parable who says, “I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years’”:

But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.[37]

The word and the sacraments are not to be stored up for the church in the church by the church. The church can no more bind the word and the sacraments than the world can. They are not bound. The church is obligated to follow them and serve them wherever the will of the wind pleases to take them.[38]

Action Steps for Church Planters:

  • Are you planting an underground church because you are against something in society or in the existing church? If so, cease immediately and repent; no church may be planted because the planter is “for” something or “against” something else. The church is the servant of the word and the sacraments, not their master.
  • Are you physically and spiritually prepared to die for the enemies of the gospel? If not, you will not be able to keep the main thing the main thing in the underground church. First, prepare to preach, pray, or die anywhere at a moment’s notice, and only then will you be ready to plant the underground church.

Action Steps for Existing Churches:

  • Study when, how, and why existing churches in Germany went underground. Study especially the Confessing Church’s Barmen Declaration[39] and add it to your church’s foundational documents and creeds for memorization and study.
  • Ask yourself, “Can the word of God be purely preached and heard, and the sacraments purely administered everywhere in Korea?” If not, where not and why not?
  • Is the main thing still the main thing at your church? Or are sermons becoming shorter and shorter and sacraments becoming less and less frequently administered so that other, more popular things may become main things? When the congregation can only endure 20 minutes of sound biblical preaching, should the pastor accommodate that or preach as long as necessary for the fullness of the gospel to be heard, no matter how unpopular that may be with church members and visitors?
  • The rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27) was prepared to obey the word within his own domain, but he was not prepared to abandon his own domain and follow the word wherever the wind was pleased to take it. Scripture says this is because “he was one who owned much property”. As the government and the general public begin to try to bind the word in Korea, are you prepared to sell all your church has in order to go underground so that you can accompany the word wherever it wants to go? The Lord says that the man with big barns was not wise to be tearing them down in order to build bigger barns at such a time. What does wisdom dictate that you do now to be able to follow the word and the sacraments into the areas where the Korean government and general public are likely to try to bind them?

(Excerpted from Pastor Foley’s book, Planting the Underground Church. To order a print or electronic copy of the bilingual Korean/English edition, visit Amazon or click here to visit the bookstore page on our website.) 



[36]  Eric J. Titus, “Calvin’s Marks of the Church: A Call for Recovery,” UDK:265.1:265.3 Professional paper, 2011, p. 114.

[37] Luke 12:19-21, NIV.

[38] See John 3:8, NIV.

[39] See

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What does Jesus mean, “In my Father’s house are many mansions?”

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John 14:1-14

Where do you live?

Nearly all human beings regard this as an important question. Biblically, however, it is the important question—so important, in fact, that Jesus addresses it again and again throughout the Gospel of John, including in today’s lectionary passage, John 14:1-14.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you may also be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:1-4)

This lectionary reading begins mid-story with Jesus responding to deeply worried disciples, so it is best to begin by examining the wider context. When does this conversation take place? Where are Jesus and the apostles? What has made the apostles troubled?

If we read John 13, we discover that this conversation takes place in the upper room the night before Jesus is crucified. Jesus has just finished washing the disciples’ feet and they are about to break bread when Jesus announces very disturbing news: “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.” (John 13:21)

The disciples are stunned. At Peter’s prompting, John asks Jesus which disciple will betray him.

“It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish,” Jesus says (John 13:26). He then dips the bread and passes it to Judas.

“What you are about to do, do quickly,” Jesus tells him (John 13:27).

Judas takes the bread and leaves. The remaining disciples are confused as to what has happened. Did Judas go out to do something for Passover? Or could he possibly be the betrayer, even at that moment heading out to deliver Jesus—and all of them—into the hands of their enemies?

Then, an even more unthinkable announcement comes from Jesus.

Jesus says that Peter will betray him three times that night! Peter is a kind of spokesperson leader for the disciples—“the rock,” according to the name Jesus had given him. But Jesus announced that the rock would falter and crumble.

Judas left in the middle of supper. Peter will apparently be shortly behind him. Of course the disciples are troubled: their world is falling apart by the minute! What if they are all separated from Jesus forever?

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus responds. “Where I am, you may be also.”

Sometimes when we read this passage, we wrongly assume that Jesus is speaking in a timeless fashion about the distant future: preparing a place in heaven for us after we die.

After Lazarus’ death, Martha thought in a similar way. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha said (John 11:21). When Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise again, Martha says, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24).

Like us, Martha assumes that Jesus is making a promise about a time long hence. He isn’t. Jesus raises Lazarus that very day.

When Jesus tells the disciples that he is preparing a place for them, he is referring to their present circumstance—and ours. Where does he go to prepare a place for us?

To the cross.

Through Christ’s death and resurrection, his body is transformed into a place with many mansions—many rooms—in which we may dwell today. Easter is the way he prepares the place for us to live. Where is this place? When do we move there? What does it mean for us to live inside another person?

In John 8:21, Jesus tells the Pharisees that have confronted him, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” This confuses the Pharisees. Where could Jesus possibly be going that they could not follow? Was he going to kill himself?

“You are from below; I am from above,” Jesus tells them. “You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:23-24).

There are only two places where human beings can live: in our sin, or in the body of Christ. Even death does not change this: Wherever we live, is where we die, and it is where we remain after we die. This is a recurring message Jesus brings throughout the gospel of John, but the crowds and even the disciples do not understand. Perhaps this is because they—and us—always think of the physical world as the “real” world.

For example, in John 2:13-22, Jesus makes a whip of cords and drives the moneychangers out of the temple. The Jewish people confront him.

“What sign do you show us for doing these things?” they ask (John 2:18). In other words, what gives you the authority to drive these men from the temple?

Jesus tells them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I shall raise it up” (John 2:19).

The Jewish people are, understandably, confused. They’ve been building the temple for forty-six years and it is still incomplete! How could Christ possibly rebuild the temple in three days? It is then that John explains that Jesus is speaking about “the temple of his body” (John 2:21).

Jesus is speaking about his body as a temple: a temple in which we live and worship. And the time for this is not in the distant future. In fact, it “is now here,” as Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well.

“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet,” she says. “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (John 4:20).

Jesus replies, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father … the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-22).

Jesus is talking about the place where people live and worship today—either in their sins, or in Christ’s body. He is talking about real places—places that are even more real than the physical locations that are the most concrete places in our lives.

In John 14, Jesus talks about places in more detail. If you continue to read, you will see that the disciples, like us, are confused as to how someone can live inside of another person. Jesus explains further in the next chapter, giving a different image (vines instead of houses) but the same truth:

“As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me … I am the vine; you are the branches … If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away and withers” (John 15:4-6).

We wrongly perceive the physical world as the “real” world and the spiritual world as vague and distant. However, the opposite is actually true: what we call the “real” world is actually a picture of the spiritual world. The physical world is real, but it is contingent upon the spiritual world; that is to say, it depends upon it for its shape and continued existence. At present it is distorted by sin (hence why we pray with Christ that things may be “on earth as it is in heaven”), but it is still sustained moment by moment by the grace of God.

An example or illustration may be helpful. You probably have a picture of your family lying around. However, the picture of your family is different from—contingent upon—your actual family; that is, the picture could not have come into existence unless you had a real family. A mother, for example, is much more than her picture. If someone were to say, “I want to spent time with my mother” but then spent all evening staring at her photo, you would become confused. “Why not go home and see your mother?” you might suggest.

It’s just as foolish for us to regard the physical world as the “real” world. The physical world is like a picture of the spiritual world—only a twisted and distorted version of it, though one that retains much beauty (and great value to God). Christ’s body, then, is more real than our own. When the Bible says that we live inside of Christ’s body, it is not a metaphor—it is reality. It is the realest place we live—or don’t.

When do we come to live in Christ’s body? When we believe and are baptized. It is then that we die to sin and become incorporated into Christ. Our branch is attached to his vine. We live inside of him, and death cannot change this. This is why the apostle Paul writes:

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Where will you live?

Will you choose to live in your sin? Human beings cannot change location when we die; where we live when we die is where we will always live. If we choose to live in our sins, we will die in our sins. The only other place to live is inside Christ.

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