David Yonggi Cho’s Leadership Challenged

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The Rev. Cho Yong-gi, pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church, the worlds biggest church, has withdrawn his promise to retire in February, and declared that he will carry on the service until 2010, sparking a controversy throughout the Protestant circle.

His retraction came on the back of almost unanimous support from the churchs congregation, which is estimated to be around 750,000.

However, some Christian groups, which have been monitoring what they claim the megachurchs wayward leadership, denounced Chos retraction as an attempt to prolong his reign over the church.

They plan to take the charismatic pastor to court over some alleged irregularities, including what they call the churchs shady internal financial transactions.

The pastor, also known as David Cho, announced during the churchs New Year Day service that he would retract his repeated assertions that he would retire on his 70th birthday next month.

“I wholeheartedly thank all of you (laypeople) for supporting my prolonged service with the approval rate of 99.8 percent. I view it as the result of my 46-year pastorate, Cho said during the service. “Following the will of the congregation, I will continue pastoral duties for five more years until 75.

In November, the church held a vote over Chos retirement and an overwhelming majority of the participants, 155,316 out of 155,617, wanted Cho to stay longer.

According to the constitution of the denomination, a pastors retirement age is set at 70, but can be delayed as late as 75 at the churchs request.

“I will designate my successor in the next three years and train him for the remaining two years for smooth succession, Cho said.

Chos prolonged pastorate draws keen attention, as he has long asserted his retirement in February.

In an interview with a daily in March 2004, he said “I will certainly retire (in two years). We are now selecting the successor. He also confirmed his stance in a statement at a church meeting in January last year.

Even after the churchs majority voted for his stay in November, he said, “I havent gotten permission from God, remaining skeptical on extending his pastorate.

Despite Chos repeated assertions, the church did not even start the screening process for Chos successor last year. According to an anonymous insider, it was virtually a taboo within the church even to discuss the succession to the charismatic pastor.

Mixed Reactions

Some Protestant groups, expecting Chos retirement as a barometer for reform in Koreas major churches, instantly expressed disappointment.

“In the Full Gospel Church, Cho, idolized and almost deified, is now eclipsing God. If he is a sincere follower of God, he should avoid such inappropriate worship dedicated to himself, said Rev. Ku Kyo-hyung, secretary general of the Christian Alliance for Church Reform. “Sometimes it looks like the North Korean leadership.

Ku said his civic group, which has also kept raising the issue of the churchs financial irregularities, plans to file a lawsuit against Cho this month.

The group has claimed that the churchs money somehow flowed into companies owned by Chos first son Hee-jun.

“We have spotted a few suspected irregularities in the church and will take them to court, Ku said.

In a related incident in 2001, Hee-jun was arrested for embezzlement and tax evasion in his companies and the pastor then apologized to the congregation during a service for his sons misbehavior.

Some civic groups view the case of Cho well represents the intrinsic problems within several Korean mega-sized churches, most of which have been growing under their pastors strong leadership.

The charisma of these leaders has contributed to the explosive growth in Korean Protestant churches, but their unchecked leadership has often been seen as bordering on dictatorship within their own churches.

The reformers say these unchallenged authorities have often been mired in corruption cases and other scandals within the churches. They believe the case of Full Gospel Church will strongly influence other megachurches in Korea.

Protestant leaders outside of the church do not seem to quite welcome Chos retraction either. According to a survey by reform-minded Christian journal Newsnjoy, nine out of 14 surveyed figures were unsupportive of Chos leadership, one was supportive, and the remaining four neutral.

“The decision of Full Gospel Church is putting a certain (ethical) burden on other Korean churches in the future. Cho should have called it quits, a pastor wrote in the survey.

On the journals Web site, users are divided over the Chos retraction. One poster named “Chinsu said it is a merely a churchs internal issue, which should not be interfered in by outsiders.

Another named “ljoy suggested that there should not be any problem in Chos prolonged service as long as there was no procedural snag, and the churchgoers wanted him. On the contrary, another Internet user “Kim Tae-gyun called Chos move “contrary to Gods will.

Amid the controversy, Full Gospel Church seems to be weary of the post-Cho era, be it now or five years later. According to a church insider, who declined to be named, many laypeople are concerned that if Cho retires, the mega-sized church could be fast dismantled.

“If the strong patriarchal order led by the single pastor ends, we dont know where the church will head, he said.

Kim Kyu-won, spokesman of the church, admits the smooth transition wont be easy in such a huge body. “It was like the Hyundai Group under Chung Ju-yungs strong leadership, Kim said. Hyundai, once Koreas biggest conglomerate, was split into three subgroups shortly after Chungs passing.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The Korea Times, Korea (south)
Jan. 5, 2005
Kim Ki-tae, Staff Reporter

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