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.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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