2013: Megachurches and the Law

Yeouido Full Gospel Church, Seoul, Südkorea
The Hankyoreh
March 1, 2013

South Korea’s megachurches need to be reminded of the law

David Yonggi Cho's oldest son is currently languishing in prison. Now the father, former senior pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, is himself facing charges of breach of trust. He is accused of causing close to US$10 million in damages to the church by arranging for it buy son Hee-jun's stock at a rate three to four times lower than market value. He is also being charged with evading taxes in the billions of won (millions of US dollars) by disguising this as normal transactions. All of this allegedly happened under the elder Cho's direction in 2002, while he was senior pastor, which would make him the prime culprit in the breach of trust charges. And it was a heinous act indeed: a pastor's family casually appropriating donations that were intended as a contribution to society.

Cho has since stepped down as senior pastor, but he still exercises tremendous influence through the Full Gospel World Mission. This foundation oversees operations not only at Yoido Full Gospel and 19 other churches, but at a number of other organizations such as the Kookmin Ilbo newspaper, Hansei University, the Youngsan Choyonggi Charity Foundation, Elim Welfare Town, and Good People International. This explains the zeal with which he focuses on the Mission, as when he created the new position of governor while stepping down as chairman of the board in 2011. All this wealth and power led to a major clash between him and his relatives over key positions. Since then, he has been in charge of the Mission and the Charity Foundation while wife Kim Sung-hye oversees Hansei University, son Hee-jun runs Elim Welfare Town, and second son Min-je holds the reins at the Kookmin Ilbo. But criticisms of the church's privatization have only snowballed.

Plundering donations from believers is the worst sin a religious body can commit. Jesus viewed property itself as an evil, instructing even those who had little to give everything to poor widows and orphans. South Korean churches are a different story altogether. Once they reach a certain level of success, the ministers who don't hire housekeepers, deck themselves out in designer clothing, drive foreign cars, and send their children overseas to study are few and far between. They legitimize their greed by viewing their wealth and success as signals of God's grace. In short, they sell God to satisfy their own desires. And the biggest offenders of all are the megachurch pastors, who scandalize everyone with their dynastic attitude toward power.

Cho Hee-jun previously received a three-year prison term (suspended for five years) in 2001 for tax evasion and embezzlement. He was put in court custody last January on charges of embezzlement and breach of trust for allegedly appropriating 3.5 billion won (US$3.2 million) in funds from the affiliate of a company he was in charge of while serving his suspended sentence. This is the third time now he has faced the courts for some terrible crime committed out of excessive confidence in his father's power. David Yonggi Cho, for his part, has shamed himself and his family by letting greed blind him to the will of God - and by breaking the rules that apply in the secular world. It is now up to our judicial authorities to pass their sternest judgment. Hopefully, the result will be a cleansing experience for megachurches that are drunk with power and greed.