Anabaptism in Korea

How it All Began

This is an article excerpt from Asia volume for “A Global Mennonite History” by Kyong-Jung Kim.

The Anabaptist witness in Korea began following the Korean War in 1953, when Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) initiated a relief ministry in and around the city of Daegu. In addition to offering food and clothing relief, MCC established a social welfare agency and the Mennonite Vocational School (MVS).  MCC volunteers served as nurses, teachers, social workers and relief agents.  As post war Korea’s economic stability increased, MCC closed its programs in 1971. The quality MCC’s workers and the positive impact of their programs, resulted in many calls for Mennonite mission boards to establish Mennonite Churches in Korea. However, these requests were not acted on by mission boards since Korea already had many Christian churches. Perhaps the most significant influence of MCC’s work was the ongoing enthusiasm for Mennonite life and practice carried into Korean society by MVS graduates.

A Presbyterian pastor, who had served as a chaplain at MVS and later studied at Eastern Mennonite College, shared his experience of Anabaptist theology and life with one of his associates, Lee Yoon Shik. Lee’s desire for further Anabaptist education took him to Canadian Mennonite Bible College from 1992-1995.  Upon his return to Korea, he moved to the northern city of Chun Cheon where he met a group of university professors who were disillusioned with the hierarchical and militaristic nature of the church in Korea and were eagerly seeking an alternative.  As Lee, and the others studied and prayed, their question was, “What is the nature of the New Testament Church and how can we bring that church into our lives?” Their studies brought them to the conclusion that the Anabaptist understanding of church was as close as they could get to the New Testament Church. In 1996 they left their traditional churches and founded Jesus Village Church, a self identified Anabaptist congregation; the first Anabaptist church in Korea.

Jesus Village Church (JVC) has grown from a house church to a community of about 50 – 60 people. In addition to developing an alternate school (V School) for its children and starting an after school program for needy children, JVC has sought to share its Anabaptist identity by reaching out to the broader Anabaptist community.  Four North American Mennonite couples have worked within JVC’s ministries.  In 2003, JVC hosted the executive committee of the Asia Mennonite Conference.  Later that year, JVC became an associate member of Mennonite World Conference.

Perhaps JVC’s most significant outreach was it’s joining with MC-Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network of MC – USA in founding the Korea Anabaptist Center (KAC) in Seoul in 2001. KAC was established as a resource center to offer information about Anabaptist theology and practice to those interested.  An extensive library of Anabaptist materials offers students opportunity to read and research. It also offers an opportunity to clarify Anabaptism to those in established churches who consider it a heresy.

KAC has grown into a multi-faceted ministry with an active peace program which teaches peace in Korea and throughout North East Asia. It offers conflict resolution workshops and practices victim-offender reconciliation. KAC also has a publishing arm (KAP) which translates and publishes Anabaptist books and writings for wider distribution.  Connexus is an English language school associated with KAC which uses a faith based, peace oriented curriculum.  KAC has significantly changed Korean attitudes toward Anabaptism by bringing in accomplished theologians such as Allan and Eleanor Kreider to teach and lecture in Korean churches and seminaries.

In order to support a new church plant in Seoul and to coordinate the growing Anabaptist network, MC-Canada Witness, MC–USA Mission Network, JVC and KAC formed Korea Anabaptist Mission Fellowship (KAMF), a forum for Anabaptist Christians involved in Korean ministries for fellowship, networking, resourcing, mutual accountability and coordinating ministries with each other. With the support of KAMF, Grace and Peace Mennonite Church was established in Seoul in 2007 under the leadership of Pastor Nam Guishik, a graduate of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS). Yellow Creek Mennonite Church of Goshen Indiana also offered significant early support to this church plant.

Grace and Peace Mennonite Church in Seoul and Jesus Village Church in Chun Cheon are currently the only clearly identified Anabaptist congregations in Korea. However, in reaction to the powerful, politically motivated mega churches, many individuals and groups throughout Korea are looking for ways to make their churches communities of sharing, service and peace where each member’s gifts are valued and all are given opportunity to exercise their gifts. A group of pastors in the city of Daejeon are meeting regularly to explore what Anabaptist theology and practice means for them and their congregations The challenge to develop a healthy network through which these emerging groups can meet, support and encourage each other continues to be a top priority.

In November of 2009, a group of Korean Anabaptist’s flew to Los Angeles, meeting with North American Anabaptists to explore ways of strengthening their individual and congregational Anabaptist identities.  The Los Angeles meeting was followed by further meetings in Calgary in July of 2010.  At these meetings, the name, Korea Anabaptist Fellowship was approved for this international gathering. A third series of meetings with wider representation was held in Chun Cheon, Korea in October of 2010.   A result of the Chun Cheon gatherings was the formation of a formal structure for the Korea Anabaptist Fellowship with representation from Korea, Canada and the USA.  A Korea Anabaptist Convention is planned for August of 2011 to bring together not only leaders but representatives from all congregations and agencies that identify themselves as Anabaptist.

Anabaptism in Korea had early ties to MCC and more recently to Mennonite Church Canada – Witness and Mennonite Church USA Mission Network. However, the current widespread interest in Anabaptism and the formation of Korea Anabaptist Fellowship are driven by a deep desire within Korean Christians to find an alternative form of Christian expression that follows the New Testament model of the church and its head, Jesus Christ. The parallels between emerging Anabaptism in Korea and sixteenth century Anabaptism in Europe are striking and exciting.