Korea and the Gospel

Missions Article 2018

Timothy Stafford

Itaewon Bible Chapel

Missions Article 2018

South Korea’s formal name is “Republic of Korea” but it is affectionately referred to as “The Land of the Morning Calm” (Kim, 2012). It is believed that this definition is derived from two Chinese characters; (조선, 朝鮮) Jo and Seon. Jo (朝) meaning early; associated with morning, and Seon (鮮); meaning quiet or calm (Wikipedia, 2018). Korea has over 5,000 years of recorded history as well as artifacts of its prehistoric existence that date back as far as 8,000 years (Kim, 2012). Korea in its earliest days was a country whose people were divided into smaller groups, tribal clans and were united only during brief periods of their history such as the Joseon period (from which they get their “Land of the Morning Calm” nickname) and even today tragically remain a divided people (Kim, 2012). Much of the early division was due in part at least to the rugged geography of Korea with its steep mountain ridges that made travel difficult and hampered regular contact with distant communities via means of usual lines of communication such as roads, bridges, and waterways. This current division which cuts the Korean peninsula in half at the 38th parallel is not the result of naturally occurring obstacles but rather an artificially imposed, man-made structure, known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ) (Kim, 2012). This barrier that prevents free travel between the North and South is the result of the Korean civil war which began on June 25, 1950 and ended with a fragile cease fire on July 27, 1953 (Kim, 2012). The DMZ however, had its beginnings after WWII when control of half the peninsula was given to Russia and half to the US (Gelézeau, 2010).

Sadly, much of Korea’s long history has been marked by bloody wars; fighting from within and without. The country has been involved in many conflicts from its regional neighbors like China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia (Kim, 2012). In spite of the relentless military incursions from countries outside her borders and the political turmoil within her borders; the resiliency of her people along with God’s grace have preserved her and kept her strong, and perhaps now even stronger than ever before (Kim, 2012).

Before Christianity

Korea’s early religions were Shamanism, Animism, Buddhism and Confucianism (Kim, 2012; Oak, 2013; Yu, 2016). These early religions whether indigenous to Korea or introduced by means of trade or other interactions with the outside world have undoubtedly had a significant influence on Korea (Yu, 2016). Some religions (e.g., Confucianism) may have in some ways prepared Korea to receive and embrace the gospel as Confucianism highly prizes education (Yu, 2016). Christian missionaries used this as a door to reach the people with the gospel by opening schools teaching women and children how to read and write, which prior to their arrival was kept from the ordinary people, especially women, and reserved for the upper class of society only (Yu, 2016).

Korean people are by practice very religious people and give themselves wholeheartedly to the religion of their choice (Baker, 2008). Religion itself seems to be a contributing factor that further divides this common people (ethnically homogenous) into a seemingly endless variety of religious camps. Notwithstanding the variety of religious camps occupied by Koreans, there is a toleration of these differences in the larger society (outside the camps) and according to Baker (2008) this stems from the fact that there is no real predominant religion in Korea but rather a society that freely associates and interacts with one another as a common people. This is more likely the result of conforming to the social order established upon Confucian and Buddhist tenets than a spirit of toleration. If one would act against the strict Confucian order, which is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of Korean society, so much so, that they own it as their native culture, one would be considered a barbarian and might well be disowned.

Shamanism and Animism can live side by with one another as neither contradicts the other. Shamanism is essentially the belief in a spirit world occupied by good and bad spirits and the spirits of ancestors that passed from this world into the next (Walraven, 2009). Animism on the other hand asserts that all things have life within them presenting no challenge to Shamanistic ideology and both Shamanism and Animism are referred to in Korea as Mudang 무당 or what westerners might call “Folk Religion” and is rife with superstitious believes used to control through fear and intimidation (Baker, 2008). In fact, many of the present day Shamans would claim Buddhism as their religion while others might claim Confucianism or Ancestral worship as their religion (Baker, 2008). Some Shamans invoke Buddhist gods while others claim to speak to deceased ancestors asking help for the family or community by driving away evil spirits or to appease offended ancestors (Baker, 2008; Walraven, 2009). Blending of religions is not uncommon in the world and this form of syncretism (when one religion incorporates parts of another religion rejecting neither the old nor fully accepting the new) was in play in Korea throughout its developmental history (Walraven, 2009). When a new religion was in its ascendency the old was not completely discarded but rather assimilated into the new making the new neither fish nor fowl (Walraven, 2009).

The light of gospel dawns

The earliest recorded introduction of Christianity into Korea came via the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) in the later years of the 18th century during the Joseon period via books that were brought into Korea from China where the RCC had a foothold (Roux, 2012). Many of the earliest converts to the RCC were martyred for their faith by government officials (Roux, 2012). Confucianism was at its zenith during this time and the introduction of RCC teachings stood in stark contrast to Confucianism’s tenets of ancestral worship and this threatened to disrupt the social order established on Confucianism (Roux, 2012). Those accused and convicted of refusing to participate in ancestral worship were beheaded (Roux, 2012). There was an attempt by RCC missionaries to blend Confucianism and Catholicism but there are too many insurmountable challenges to this idea (Oak, 2013).

Protestant missionaries brought the gospel to Korea approximately one-hundred years after the RCC had introduced Christianity and more specifically the idea of monotheism, a concept heretofore unknown to Korea (Baker, 2016). The gospel flourished seemingly uninhibited from the waning days of the Joseon period from 1876 until the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 (Baker, 2016; Kim, 2012; Oak, 2013). From 1910 throughout the Japanese colonization period of Korea’s history the gospel suffered opposition as it stood in opposition to the Japanese preferred religion of Buddhism (Oak, 2013).

During the period following the Japanese colonization of Korea the gospel once again spread freely without much opposition from the government, albeit the country had been divided in half after World War II with the Southern part of the country occupied by Allied forces made up primarily of US Military with the Russian military occupying the North (Ryu, 2018). During this period of time Kim Il Sung the first dictator of North Korea the “Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK)” began his rise to power where initially there was a cool indifference to Christians and Christianity (Ryu, 2018). There were even some Christians that initially held office in the DPRK but after the civil war when Kim reluctantly agreed to a ceasefire to consolidate power he quashed any form religious freedom that would contradict the states ideology of Juche which some interpret as the ideology of self-reliance which when boiled down to its basic elements, Juche is veneration of the state (Ryu, 2018). Be that as it may, the gospel continues to bring light to a dark DPRK (Ryu, 2018). Some conclude that believers are driven underground and cannot openly express their faith for fear of severe persecution (Ryu, 2018). However, the evidence of continued Christianity in DPRK comes about indirectly as there are no official statistics to substantiate its existence other than by way of speeches made by leaders acknowledging the existence of Christians and their need for reeducation (Ryu, 2018).

South of the DMZ is another story! The gospel truly is unfettered and every mainstream denomination of Christianity is seemingly thriving and it would appear that all is well… But appearances can be deceiving (Baker, 2016). That is not say that there are not reasons for joy and thanksgiving for there are many to be sure. The gospel is preached and Christ is believed on and the local Church is growing. In the city of Seoul alone there are thousands if Churches. There is however work to do here in Korea and IBC is blessed to have a part in that ministry.

Ongoing work

Although the gospel has fully taken root in Korea, the Old religions of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shamanism have not been fully rooted out. There is no question that Christ has been preached and the message has been fruitful. He has impacted Korea and significantly influenced its culture, there are still vestiges of its past that remain which inhibit the full blessing of the gospel – some visible and some invisible. It is the invisible ones that are the greatest threat to the building up of the local Church to the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13, New International Versions), especially the vestiges of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shamanism that seem to have crept into the church unawares (Jude 4, New International Version). Confucianism is antithetical to biblical teaching on the Church, in that it teaches hierarchical schemes of rank and position that encourage some to think of themselves as better than others and to expect to be honored by those that are deemed of a lower order (Philippians 2:3, New International Version). This is not unlike the Pharisaical system that was in existence at Jerusalem during Christ’s ministry where the Lord castigated them for seeking honor from each other rather than from God (John 5:44, New International Version). Buddhism on the other hand asserts that there are many ways to God while Christ teaches He and He alone is the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father but by Him (John 14:6, New International Version). Shamanism teaches that there are many gods and man must learn to appease them to gain their favor while the bible teaches that by grace we are saved through faith and that God who is One, has been appeased by the cross work of Christ his Son (Ephesians 2:8,9; Mark 12:29; Romans 3:25, New International Version). The work that must continue in Korea and will continue in Korea as the Lord permits is the purging out of the old leaven and looking solely to Christ for he is our all in all (1 Corinthians 5:7 and Colossians 3:11).


Along with reaching people with the Good News of Jesus Christ Itaewon Bible Chapel (IBC) aims to preach and teach the world of God according to the light that God has given. As some of you may already know, in response to the Lord’s leading we have planted a church in Itaewon, a small enclave in Seoul, Korea. Although still in fellowship with the local Korean Church community, we function autonomously under the headship of Christ. This work is directed primarily toward foreign nationals living and working in Seoul. Inclusive of that group are internationally married couples (Korean to others), US military, foreign workers, and also local nationals. IBC has had believers in fellowship from all over the world; Africa, Brazil, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Netherlands, Panama, Philippines, and the USA.

The idea of establishing an English speaking meeting in Korea came out of our experience in bringing in non-native Koreans into the Korean assembly at Noryangjin and the difficulties the language barrier presented. Although we were welcome and great efforts were made to accommodate us it became increasingly obvious that the language barrier would inhibit the free exercise of the priesthood and we would remain on the outside looking in rather than an integral part of the fellowship of believers. In consultation with the elders from Noryangjin and our home assembly we sought the Lord’s leading and believed the Lord would have us start a separate English speaking meeting that would function autonomously under the headship of the Lord Jesus Christ. IBC is the only English speaking New Testament Pattern Assembly in Korea. Our first meeting was held in January 2015 and the Lord has continued to faithfully provide and care for us.

We are always looking for ways to enhance the learning experience of those at IBC and the local community of Churches in Seoul. To realize this vision, as we are able, we invite brothers and their families from the US and surrounding areas to come to Korea share what the Lord lays on their heart for us. Our first visitors, Ken and Joyce Hardisty came from the Philippines to help in outreach to the local Filipino community for several home bible studies and visits to some of the local Korean Assemblies. Keith and Naomi Keyeser came and helped with the establishment of IBC in its first couple of months while still a home meeting, and then were exceedingly gracious and returned to continue to help build us up in God’s word. Randy and Sylvia Amos also kindly accepted an invitation to come and work with us for a few weeks and held a mini-conference at Noryangjin Assembly where brother Randy spoke on “The Brides of the Bible” and visitors from as far away as the Philippines came to attend. We also had a very special visit from Jim and Lisa Cagliostro and were able to host them for a few days and they were kind enough to share from the word of God with us.

 One of the ways we are building up believers is by conducting English Language Bible (ELL) studies. This work is an in-reach to minister to those in fellowship at IBC and also an outreach to encourage those interested in learning the English language to come and hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. Please consider putting IBC on your prayer list that the Church may continue to grow and be used mightily for the Lord. Our specific prayer requests are the following:

  • Lord’s leading to procure a larger building to accommodate increasing numbers.
  • The Lord’s wisdom regarding a curriculum in ELL program
  • Fuller development of Sunday school program for youth


Baker, D. L. (2008). Korean spirituality. University of Hawaii Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=RCBe9w9C2UkC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=Korean+Spirituality&ots=WvX-pBushh&sig=mJOH_-CzX8NCd-3vChBsMlPd0wI

Baker, D. L. (2016). The impact of Christianity on modern Korea: An overview. Acta Koreana, 19(1), 45-67. doi:10.18399/acta.2016.19.1.002

Kim, J. (2012). A history of Korea: From “Land of the Morning Calm” to states in conflict. Indiana University Press. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/lib/apollolib/detail.action?docID=1031819#

Oak, S.-D. (2013). The making of Korean Christianity: Protestant encounters with Korean religions, 1876-1915. Baylor University Press. Retrieved from https://muse.jhu.edu/book/26828

Gelézeau, V. (2010). Beyond the ‘Long Partition’. From divisive geographies of Korea to the Korean ‘meta-culture. European Journal of East Asian Studies, 9(1), 1-24. doi:10.1163/156805810×517643

Roux, P.-E. (2012). The great Ming code and the repression of Catholics in Choson Korea. Acta Koreana, 15(1), 73. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/download/31610067/08_Roux_15-1.pdf

Ryu, D. Y. (2018). Kim Il-Sung and Christianity in North Korea. Journal of Church and State. doi:10.1093/jcs/csy079/5127077

Walraven, B. (2009). National pantheon, regional deities, personal spirits? Mushindo, sŏngsu, and the nature of Korean shamanism. Asian ethnology, 55-80. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/download/34714888/NationalPantheon.pdf

Wikipedia. (2018, November 4). Names of Korea. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_Korea

Yu, K. K. (2016). Korea’s Confucian culture of learning as a gateway to Christianity: Protestant missions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Studies in World Christianity, 22(1), 37-56. doi:10.3366/swc.2016.0136

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