An Understanding of Orthodoxy and Heresy in Korean Church History

By Suh, Jeong-Min | The Ecumenical Review, October 2005 | Go to article overview

An Understanding of Orthodoxy and Heresy in Korean Church History


Suh, Jeong-Min, The Ecumenical Review


Introduction: historical treatment of orthodoxy and heresy Orthodoxy versus heresy is a well-known theme for discussion. Distinguishing between the two is the goal in doctrinal and theological debates. Sometimes a church has used this standard to maintain its identity. If, rather than looking at this issue from a theological or doctrinal point of view, we take instead a more historical perspective, we can focus on geographical, social and temporal aspects. Even though Christianity has several core/critical themes, which change little throughout history, such as; the centrality of Christ, the essence of the gospel, or the authority of the Bible, most themes, including the criteria used to distinguish orthodoxy from heresy, contain historical backgrounds or developments. Issues of orthodoxy and heresy have changed with the times. This is the case in Korean church history despite its relatively short tradition.

The Korean church is a missioned church of the second mission era, (1) so the early form of the Korean church was full of processes influenced by the western church. This means that criteria used to distinguish heresy from orthodoxy came from those of western Christianity. This paper will examine the subject of the criteria used to distinguish between heresy and orthodoxy throughout Korean church history.

In the first instance, independence from missionaries and pursuing the goal of an independent church were the initial subjects of heretic disputes in Korean church history. It was natural because the Korean church was so influenced by the form of Christianity brought by the missionaries. In other words, in the early Korean church, anti-missionary activities were viewed as heretic.

Secondly, small group faith movements, so-called sects, were the subject of orthodoxy and heresy disputes. As Christians began to have their own religious experiences, interpretation of the Bible and methods to define their faith, new churches formed. Here the range of Korean traditional religious experiences and the link with foreign sects became a more serious matter. They insisted on a different manifesto from the existing churches. (2) This triggered a heretic dispute.

Thirdly, groups of new theologians, especially those who accepted radical theology, caused a further heretic dispute. A typical example of this can be found in the Korean Presbyterian Church. Early Korean theologians, who studied abroad, introduced new theologies which were different from those of the missionaries.

Fourthly, as social confusion caused division within the church, and the experiences and interpretation of faith varied, heretic sects flourished. Here heretic disputes spread into social problems. Rev. Tak Myung-whan and his group have contributed much to the fruitful research in this field. (3)

Conflicts with missionaries

   Why do you say I am disobedient? I was just thinking of the Lord's
   love, my poor people, and God's Word. God gave me his power and I
   was just looking at a bad situation in the Korean Presbyterian
   Church. Even though you feel great sorrow, you can't judge me
   because I'm free. I'm free because there is no other way. I am free
   so as not to hear that I am disobedient. (4)

The so-called anti-missionary case, which is on record as the first case of conflict with missionaries in Korean church history, happened in Jeon-buk province, in 1910. Choi Jung-jin and his Church of Freedom rose in revolt against the American Southern Presbyterian Church missionaries. He was the first graduate of Pyung-yang Presbyterian Seminary who came from Ho-nam province. After graduation he entered the ministry in Te-in, Me-gye, Bu-an, Im-sil and Jung-up, which are parts of Jeon-buk province. He had trouble with missionaries who had authority over his region because of mission policy, control of missionary funds, adjustment of missionary districts, and the management of missionary institutions. …

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