Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, Voice of the Martyrs Korea President, authors this special 8-part series on Kim Kyo Shin, one of the greatest martyrs in Korean Christian history whose voice needs to be heard today more than ever, by Korea and the world.
The passage of time can give us helpful perspective on the work of God. When Kim Kyo Shin lived and wrote, Korea was struggling under Japanese colonization and the Korean church was still very young and attempting to sort out its own identity and practices. It subsequently went through a period of miraculous growth, making it appear that it had made the right choices and found the right formula for growth. But now today, after the miraculous growth wave has passed and we are beginning to experience even some decline (Lee, 2011, 100), it is helpful to re-examine some of those choices and see if reform is necessary.
One of the areas of re-examination that most directly relates to the thinking of Kim Kyo Shin is indigenization: Should the Christian faith look different in each place where the gospel goes? If so, to what degree, and how can we decide what cultural adaptations are helpful and even necessary and which ones are harmful and even heretical? Kim Yun Seong (2004, 2012), senior researcher at the Academy of Korean Studies, notes that in the history of the Korean church, the indigenization of Christianity has been partial, typically related to practice rather than theology, and generally regarded by the Korean church as a kind of deterioration rather than a positive sign of life and good practice. Suh Jeong Min (2005, 451) of Yonsei University explains that this is because orthodoxy in Korean church history has essentially meant correspondence to Western Christianity; thus, from the beginning any departure from Western Christian practices was by definition heretical.
Today, however, missiologists recognize that indigenization should not be automatically regarded as a sign of deterioration or an act of heresy; it is, in fact, a necessary process by which the gospel becomes fully intelligible to a new culture. We see that orthodoxy is not intended to prevent indigenization but to guide the develop of indigenous thought and practice and keep it within certain bounds that the church across history and time has agreed are important. Andrew F. Walls, the British Christian theologian, has reviewed mission development globally from the Bible on through the present time and concluded that the failure to indigenize Christianity is itself a heresy, one that results in proselytes, not converts:
The later church has seen many heresies come and go, but the earliest of them has been by far the most persistent. The essence of the “Judaizing” tendency is the insistence on imposing our own religious culture, our own Torah and circumcision. Christian conversion as demonstrated in the New Testament is not about substituting something new for something old—that is to move back to the proselyte model, which the apostolic church could have adopted but decided to abandon. Perhaps they remembered the word of the Lord—his only recorded utterance on the subject of proselytes—that proselytes, won by infinite pains, readily become children of hell (Matt. 23:15). Nor is conversion a case of adding something new to what is already there, a new set of beliefs and values to supplement and refine those already in place. Conversion requires something much more radical. It is less about content than about direction. It involves turning the whole personality with its social, cultural, and religious inheritance toward Christ, opening it up to him. It is about turning what is already there (Walls, 2004, 5).
Walls goes on to suggest surprisingly that evangelical Christians (such as those who brought the gospel to Korea) are most at risk of committing this heresy because they know how important it is for a Christian to have a personal experience of coming to faith. As a result, such missionaries “expected to see a similar pattern of experience in those who came to Christian faith, even in societies where there had been no previous Christian profession” (Walls, 2004, 2).
In other words, American missionaries look for American-style conversions; if a conversion looks “un-American,” they think it may not be genuine and may even be heretical. Walls points out that this was certainly the case in the Bible, where the early Jewish Christians struggled to understand and accept what it would look like for Gentiles to follow Jesus. Walls asks, “Is it significant that Paul’s tone is harsher with the Galatians, who were, with excellent motives, rejecting the call to a converted Hellenistic lifestyle, than it is with the Corinthians, who were making a mess of constructing one?” (Walls, 2004, 6).
The possibility is that with the Korean church and the early American missionaries who assisted it, perhaps they should have been more willing to “make a mess” (or accept one) and work toward greater indigenization because only in this way could non-Christian ways of thinking and acting in Korean society be fully challenged and changed. This is not to say that the Korean church did not change Korean society but that the changes might have been even deeper and wider and longer lasting. As it is, the Korean church seems pretty satisfied that it made a big enough change in Korean culture.
But maybe our standards are too low. As another pre-eminent missiologist, Lamin Sanneh (2007, 9), writes, “It was [the early Christian converts’ responsibility] to make Christianity feel at home rather than to implant someone else’s national custom in their midst.” Bringing American Christianity to Korea certainly changed Korea, but is it possible that valuable energy and attention of early Korean Christians was spent making Korea more American when it could have been focused on making Korea more Christian? Walls says this is generally what has happened historically whenever missionaries have chosen the safer way of proselytizing over the messier way of conversion: “The general effect of the proselyte lifestyle would almost certainly have been to draw the new believers’ energies in another direction. It might have produced very devout Christians, but their effect on their society and its ways of thinking would have been negligible” (Walls, 2004, 5).
Next in Part III of this special series on Kim Kyo Shin: Why The Japanese Feared Kim More Than The Korean Church.
Kim, Y.S. 2004. Review: Yu Yeong-mo and a new vision for the indigenization of Korean Christianity. The Review of Korean Studies, 7(1): 224-228.
Lee, S.C. 2011. Revisiting the Confucian norms in Korean church growth. International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 1(13): 87-103.
Sanneh, L.O. 2007. Disciples of all nations: Pillars of world Christianity (Oxford Studies in World Christianity). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Suh, J.M. 2005. An understanding of orthodoxy and heresy in Korean church history. The Ecumenical Review, 57(4), 451–462.
Walls, A.F. 2004. Converts or proselytes? The crisis over conversion in the Early Church. International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 28(1), 2-6.
As you write this there is a huge outcry against so called “insider movements” that are “too indigenized”. Some are rightly rejected as syncretism, but often the Americans most critical fail to see themselves as an insider movement of our own cultures accommodations of the Christian message.
Great point, Chuck. Yes, I was sharing with our staff here on this subject just the other day. I was noting that it is easy to fall off in one of two directions: syncretism or proselytism. We all tend at times to err on one side or the other. Only the Holy Spirit can keep us on the knife’s edge of true internal and external transformation. Semper reformanda, as you Reformed guys like to say…
You are the last of the Renaissance men, Pastor Chuck!
Or indecisive ….
Dr. Foley’s reply: “No.” 🙂
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