The Korean Church and the Reformed Faith Today

Korea is an arm of the continent of Asia. thrust out into the sea. The upper arm and the whole body of Asia is like a prisoner, trussed and gagged by Communism. Except for the far-away soft underbelly and some rather feebly struggling toes Korea alone is free enough to wriggle and fight. Meanwhile it is far removed from the other struggling extremities. Where Christianity has gone underground or remained a weak minority elsewhere, in Korea it is much alive and strong.


According to the 1962 annual government releases Christians now outnumber Buddhists two to one. In this traditional stronghold of Oriental religions the Ministry of Education lists 736,844 Protestants, 590,962 Roman Catholics and 687,345 Buddhists. What about Confucians? Throughout the country they number a mere 26,137 in thirty-four “churches.”

Of course, Korea has other religions. With the exception of a few miniscule imports like Mormonism and Bahaism, most of these are indigenous to the land, evidencing deep roots in Korea’s past and a general opposition to the outlook and ideology of the western world in cultural matters. Yet of the nineteen listed beside Buddhism and Confucianism, fourteen have four or less congregations. Although four of these religions list more than 10,000 constituents (one, the “Dongdo Kyo” as many as 291,826) these are not influential. The average Korean hardly knows that many of them exist.

Not only do Protestants number the most adherents; they also total 6,785 congregations—nearly three times as many as Buddhism and more than six times as many as Roman Catholicism (1,004). Though usually smaller and less well-built structures than those of the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant edifices blanket the countryside. The present growth of Roman Catholicism is phenomenal and frightening. Yet the Koreans themselves chalk this up to the massive relief program which is carried on, particularly by their way of handling United States government surplus foods. Almost all funds for church buildings come directly from the Vatican, according to a French priest here.



As in so many other countries Protestantism in Korea is a potpourri of various groups. Presbyterians number three times as many as the next largest group, the Methodists. The Holiness churches, a conservative methodistic group, have nearly 100,000 constituents. Below are listed the figures for 1962 as reported by the Christian Literature Society of Seoul, most of these gleaned &000 actual reports by the churches themselves. These are nearly double the figures published by the Korean government.

Presbyterian (all groups) 710,346 Methodists 235, 357 Holiness 96,405 Seventh Day Adventists 76,000 Salvation Army 25, 986 Baptists (founded by Southern Baptists from the U.S.A.) 11,530

All other groups list less than 10,000 each. These arc mostly fundamentalistic groups from America which began work after World War II. Exceptions are the Episcopal (Anglican) Church numbering 6,068, and the lone congregation of the Far Eastern Apostolic (Greek Orthodox) Church with 950 constituents. It should be remembered that the method of counting members varies from group to group.


Today there are four large groups of Presbyterians with possibly three very small others.

The largest, presently called the “Tonghap” group, totals 1950 congregations and is supported by missionaries of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and the Australian Presbyterian Church. It has partial or complete control of two large universities, three colleges and several seminaries. The size of the missionary body assisting it and the large denominations which these missionaries represent make for massive aid in financing, in literature, in education and in international church contacts.

The second is the “Koryu” Seminary group. In 1951 the Pusan Presbytery of the then undivided mother church reformed as a separate body. This was after long and strong but apparently futile protest and activity against modernism and Shinto shrine obeisance in the church, which had been required by the Japanese occupation government.

This “Koryu” group maintained a strong stand for orthodoxy. It made the greatest commitment and witness to the Reformed faith. It sought the theological climate of the Free University of Amsterdam and of Westminster, Calvin, Faith and later also Covenant Seminaries in America, while the larger group from which it divided continued with few exceptions to seek the breeze of Princeton, Union, etc. In Koryu Seminary and the Bedgling Calvin College it warmly welcomed the theology of Kuyper, Bavinck, Schilder, and Dooyeweerd together with the voices of the Hodges, Warfield, Vos, Machen, Berkhof and the present faculty leaders of Westminster and Calvin in America. From its inception this group was assisted by missionaries from the Orthodox Presbyterian and the Bible Presbyterian churches, and after a split in the latter group also from the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The Christian Reformed Church gave tens of thousands of dollars for seminary, hospital and church work through its diaconal relief committees and sent frequent visitors for surveyor lecture purposes. By 1960 this group attained a size of 590 churches with some 140,000 constituents.

A third group with some 667 churches is popularly called the “Hangook” Seminary group. It has a constituency of 130,346. It is the product of a split in 1954, three years after the “Koryu” group had re-formed. Many of its leaders were precisely the men against whom the “Koryu” group had been protesting. The mother body, having cut off the continually scratching foot, finally discovered that there was an infection worth scratching about. Thus this new split. Barthian in its seminary and some of the publications of its leaders, it is militantly outspoken against orthodoxy and for the ecumenical movement. It has a high reputation for scholarship and numbers many members who are influential government officials. It is aided by missionaries from the United Church of Canada. who are probably more liberal than their Korean colleagues.

In 1959 a fourth group emerged, again the result of a split within the original body. Claiming both legal and spiritual succession, it also possesses the original minutes, seal and gavel of the historical church. It regards the other dissenting body (“Tonghap”) as a split from itself, since that group did not reconvene with them after an emergency recess had been called by the moderator of the 1959 General Assembly because of chaos on the floor. Called the “Seungdong” group, it continues bereft of its former missionary assistance, colleges, seminary buildings and international church ties. It retained. about 1250 congregations. Its battle within the church had been against the encroaching dangers of the ecumenical movement and liberalism, together with a growing distrust of the missionaries and their policies.


In 1960 the “Koryu” and “Seungdong” groups united as long separated brothers who, although in separate organizations, had been lighting the same battles. The union was hastily, ill-planned and, unfortunately, short-lived. Though things began sweetly and with much emotion and enthusiasm, the united body was immediately racked by a strident minority favoring ICCC ties. Failing to achieve their purpose, although they used every maneuver which they could from good to deplorable, this minority broke away in 1962 with ten or twenty churches.

Meanwhile distrust grew between leaders of the two united groups. Certain original conditions of the union were being broken according to some “Koryu” leaders. As time progressed the “Koryu” group found itself facing a heavy-handed majority in church assemblies, since only a small minority among the General Assembly elected officers were their men. In particular the “Koryu” element was battling to have its seminary continue in Pusan, although this school had become a branch of the General Assembly seminary in Seoul. The General Assembly had decided to let the Pusan school die on the vine by permitting no new students to enroll there. These facts and factional thinking made it clear that the marriage had been more in name than in spirit. General charges of corruption were also hurled against the larger element by some “Koryu” leaders in publicly circulated statements.

As a result the “Koryu” Seminary at Pusan was reinstated by its former trustees in the autumn of 1962. The “Koryu” group then declared itself restored as an independent body in August 1963. At its General Assembly, held in September 1963, it reported 445 churches. However 150 original “Koryu” churches remain in the union together with 3B others which had refrained for years from the “Koryu” assemblies and now joined the larger group. Presently this larger or “Seungdong” group totals about 1450 churches.


The three missionary couples from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the two missionary couples from World Presbyterian Missions (Covenant Seminary group in St. Louis, Mo.) went along with the union of 1960. Until now they have remained with this church. As individuals, however, they maintain close ties with the “Koryu” group, trying to assist both groups although reserving official cooperation only with the union assembly.

Christian Reformed Church financial aid has almost come to an end. The medical work of Drs. Boelens and Ten Have is not specifically geared to any of these church groups as such. Yet the union group looks to the Christian Reformed Church for help, particularly for its new plans for seminary buildings.

Both of these groups, the “Seungdong” and the “Koryu,” with their aggregate of some 1900 congregations represent, humanly speaking, the hope of the Reformed faith in Korea. Both are moving towards a more consistent theological orthodoxy, giving new attention to Dutch and American Calvinism. This can be seen in seminary texts, published articles, etc. This writer feels that the most improvement and the best stand have been taken by the “Koryu” group. But both sides have dimmed the light of their testimony by a deplorable lack of unity and love, which has been accompanied by an undue stress on legality in many of their actions. The temptation arises to accuse one or another side of schism, yet blame must be taken by both sides also for this.

In such circumstances there is a tendency to lose patience and stand apart from these dissident groups with critical eye. Certainly the missionaries on the spot have known great discouragement. Yet we see again the vast work which must be done, as well as the strong beginnings which have been made. We rejoice in the current Bowing back to a clearer orthodoxy and the good fight against the inclusivistic policies of the ecumenical movement.

Once again we see Korea as a lonely wriggling finger of the bound and gagged Asian continent. Here, at least, the gospel is still preached and in freedom. Here Communism is strongly opposed. We must not retreat from this stand.