The Rev. Cho Yong-gi, pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church, the world’s biggest church, has withdrawn his promise to retire in February, and declared that he will carry on the service until 2010, sparking a controversy throughout the Protestant circle.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 church’s congregation, which is estimated to be around 750,000.
However, some Christian groups, which have been monitoring what they claim the megachurch’s wayward leadership, denounced Cho’s 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 church’s shady internal financial transactions.
The pastor, also known as David Cho, announced during the church’s 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 Cho’s 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 pastor’s retirement age is set at 70, but can be delayed as late as 75 at the church’s request.
“I will designate my successor in the next three years and train him for the remaining two years for smooth succession,’’ Cho said.
Cho’s 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 church’s majority voted for his stay in November, he said, “I haven’t gotten permission from God,’’ remaining skeptical on extending his pastorate.
Despite Cho’s repeated assertions, the church did not even start the screening process for Cho’s 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.
Some Protestant groups, expecting Cho’s retirement as a barometer for reform in Korea’s 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 church’s financial irregularities, plans to file a lawsuit against Cho this month.
The group has claimed that the church’s money somehow flowed into companies owned by Cho’s 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 son’s 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 Cho’s retraction either. According to a survey by reform-minded Christian journal Newsnjoy, nine out of 14 surveyed figures were unsupportive of Cho’s 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 journal’s Web site, users are divided over the Cho’s retraction. One poster named “Chinsu’’ said it is a merely a church’s internal issue, which should not be interfered in by outsiders.
Another named “ljoy’’ suggested that there should not be any problem in Cho’s 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 Cho’s move “contrary to God’s 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 don’t know where the church will head,’’ he said.
Kim Kyu-won, spokesman of the church, admits the smooth transition won’t be easy in such a huge body. “It was like the Hyundai Group under Chung Ju-yung’s strong leadership,’’ Kim said. Hyundai, once Korea’s biggest conglomerate, was split into three subgroups shortly after Chung’s passing.