Abuse, Patriarchy and Korean Paternalism

Normally new writers for RM tend to write a blog post introducing themselves to RM’s readers. But as I tried writing mine, various issues from my upbringing kept rising to the surface.

Who am I? I’m a victim of Patriarchal abuse, which I imagine, after 10 years of youth ministry, is not so uncommon in Korean circles.

I beg you to bear with me as I try to articulate my experience. I warn you though, for some of you, there may be triggering material below.

Korean families, especially those living here in the US, are characterized by patriarchal paternalism. That just means that the wants, needs, wishes, and happiness of the father are prioritized for the sake of the well-being and flourishing of the family. In return, it was understood that the father’s job is to safeguard the welfare and future of the family. To that end, he often will use any means necessary, including violence, to establish paternalistic authority.  This, of course, creates a totem pole hierarchy. For the good of the entire family, Dad is in charge, followed by mom.

This was problematic for me, to say the least.

In 4th grade, I remember racing home from school after report cards were handed out. When I got home, I excitedly told my father that I earned 2nd honors. (It’s kinda like the consolation prize for those who just missed the “real” honor roll). My father refused to look at me. Instead he made me kneel before him (his usual “goto” move before picking up an object beating me with it), and berated me…telling me how this was unacceptable and how much I embarrassed him with my grades. He then proceeded to beat me with a metal fly swatter. He began to prefer the swatter to a broom stick because the thin metal clearly inflicted more pain since it acted more like a thin switch. And it didn’t cause bruising.

This particular time, his anger ran deeper than usual. Unsatisfied with switching me who knows how many times…he then ordered me to strip down naked. One of my old toys from earlier on in my childhood was a rocking chair made for toddlers. He ordered me to hold the rocking chair above my head while standing in the middle of the living room naked. He then opened the curtains as if to let the whole world to publically view my shaming. To this day, I wonder if he was trying to communicate to me how much shame I had brought him with my bad report card.  I suppose that guess is as good as any explanation. He never really did say.

What I’d like for you to understand that this was the norm of my life.  I’m not really sure if this was how other Korean kids were treated at home. But more often than not, this was pretty common. Whenever I upset him, which was pretty often, things like this would always follow.

And what made this really confusing for me was that I’m convinced that in his mind he really believed he was paternalistically doing it for my own good.

Frankly, this probably explains why I bought into Christianity so quickly once I got to college. Things were so bad at home that I felt I had no choice but to trade one father in for a more Heavenly One.  You would think that this (ie giving your life to Christ and being saved) would fix the problem.  It did…and it didn’t.

When I got to college, I converted from Roman Catholicism to Protestant Christianity at a Korean PCA church with a thriving college ministry. Despite belonging to the PCA, the church heavily emphasized charismatic gifts and revivalism. The description that its leaders used was that we were Charismatic in worship but Reformed in theology.

I’m sure that to some this combination sounds like the best of both worlds. There were many people who flourished because of it. But for me with my history, this might have been the worst possible scenario that I could’ve walked into.

Here’s why.

The Locus of Christianity for Koreans tends to be not in theology, but in revival. This is problematic in of itself as Theology is often treated as a tool to discern authentic revival more than something we use to Think God’s thoughts after Him.

Furthermore, I have personally found that the more Charismatic a church is, the more God’s presence seems to have a “Big Brother” effect on people, causing them to demand legalistic righteousness from themselves and others around them.

Secondly, when I say “Reformed”, I don’t mean that tradition of Calvinistic Christianity that is best captured in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Most of the members at my old church had never even read the Confession or The Three Forms of Unity. Instead, the “Reformed Theology” that our church espoused was that captured in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.

For those of you who don’t know what that is, here’s a synopsis.

In 1994, Theologian Wayne Grudem published one of the most readable and accessible Systematic Theology books ever written. It was so easy to read, compared to all of the others, that most 2nd Generation Korean pastors who were educated in the US at that time, learned theology with it, including all the pastors that I had sat under.

The biggest problem with this is that it contains a doctrine called “The Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son” (hence EFS) that I have found to be most hurtful.  If you really want an overview, check out Christianity Today’s article on it.


My biggest problem with EFS.

Grudem sets up a situation where hierarchal authority (and submission) becomes a de facto communicable attribute of the Trinity.

Divine Attributes are descriptions about God. They are ways that God characterizes Himself. The communicable attributes then function as ideal characterizations of the Church.

Eg, If God is Love, and Love is a communicable attribute, then the Church ought to be characterized by love as well. Any failure of the Church to be loving has always been considered sin.

Here is my point. If hierarchical authority and subordination functionally characterize God, then those things, as functional divine attributes, become ideals that should characterize individual Christians as well. To fail to be characterized by those attributes, would have to be understood as sin.

So what is the problem?

It is my contention that EFS was used to reinforce and normalize Korean cultural values while leaving people like me (ie its victims) no way to curb (or defend ourselves against) those values’ abuses*1.

Let me be clear here. I don’t think that Grudem intentionally formulated a doctrine that would have these kinds of negative effects*2. And it’s obvious that the problems of culture predated Grudem’s book.

But regardless of what Grudem’s original intentions were, this doctrine functionally allowed church leaders and parents alike to actively use or at least turn a blind eye to abuse en route to helping people grow into what they thought was godliness.

A case in point is that my father was a Christian. He really thought he was doing me a favor by forcing me to submit to his authority.  Though he wasn’t a trained theologian, he was Christian enough to make a theological connection that getting me to submit to his authority (subordination) was a godly thing (communicable attribute).  And he had no one around to tell him that this way of thinking was wrong.

My friend and fellow RM writer Marcos Ortega said it this way: “If the Father is authoritative and the Son subordinate, and if these attributes should define the way we live in the church and in our families, it’s no wonder that some will turn to abuse in order to ensure obedience. That to me is the most insidious aspect you’re pointing at. People are abusing to be obedient to God!”

Over the years I have found myself a bit out of step with my fellow Korean Christians.  I imagine, on my end, it’s largely because of this. At times, I have felt so alone and ostracized, thinking that my experience was unique and in many ways, my own fault. Nowadays, I’m almost certain this is not true. In fact, I think this scenario happens a lot more often than many of us would like to admit. Talking about it openly is the first step…followed by a Church with compassionate willingness to listen and minister.

Perhaps in a later post, I’ll list out coping strategies that I used to survive.

God bless you all.


*1. For an example of how Subordinationism was used in some Korean churches to teach hierarchical authority, see Nancy Abelman’s book, the Intimate University: Korean American Students and the Problem of Segregation”. Particularly take note of the chapters on the role church plays in many Korean American student’s lives.  

*2. Just as an aside, EFS didn’t just cause problems for Koreans. Check out Aimee Byrd’s review of Ruth Tucker’s book, “Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife”. The allusion she is making is inescapable. There seems to be a correlation between EFS and spousal abuse in Christian complementarian marriages.  

*update:  I just re-read Aimee Byrd’s post that I linked above. It does NOT say that there is a correlation between EFS and spousal abuse. This is case where I simply remembered things wrongly. I apologize for any trouble this has caused.  And as a rule of thumb, I feel its helpful for me to keep my sins of this nature out in public.  – Joe Kim, 12-31-16



Joe Kim

Joe Kim is the English Ministry pastor at Emmaus Ministries in Bayside, NY. He was born and raised in Levittown, Pa. He has a BA in Music from Toccoa Falls College in Toccoa, Georgia and an MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is married to Emii and has a daughter Norah. Joe has been in ministry to various age groups since 2001. He enjoys reading, playing the guitar, eating, sleeping and breathing…in that order.

12 thoughts on “Abuse, Patriarchy and Korean Paternalism

  • December 30, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    Thanks for sharing Joe. I’m willing to bet there are a lot of Korean-Americans in your boat. Asians in American have got a lot of unaddressed baggage and this is great for beginning to sort it out!

    • December 30, 2016 at 7:21 pm

      Thank you Josh for your kind words. We do have a lot of baggage. Lord help us figure out how to minister to them well. Thank you for commenting!

  • December 30, 2016 at 10:17 pm

    Thanks so much for this,Joe. Powerful, with much to think about. Strength, brother!

    • December 31, 2016 at 12:08 am

      Thank you Dr. Mouw, for those encouraging words. You, through your books and your irenic spirit, have been a source of strength and inspiration for me and are a large part of why I am (still) Reformed. Thank you for commenting!

  • January 7, 2017 at 8:14 am

    Thanks for writing this piece, Joe. Appreciate your bringing into the discussion the real aspects of how culture an influence/shape the practice of faith.

    • January 11, 2017 at 8:18 am

      Thank you Derek. I’m hoping that this helps bring this topic out in the open. Thank you for commenting.

    • January 11, 2017 at 7:36 am

      Hi NJ. Thank you for giving me this link. That article was pretty helpful.

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  • March 3, 2017 at 6:46 am

    Your topic although a hard one to address I am sure has opened the door for much healing and understanding of this topic. Thanks for your courage and vulnerability in that.
    The devil has woven with stealth ability a crafty web of peverting the God-given freedom authority gives us (in all its forms) into a mess of confusion and bondage that most people have struggled with and or are bound with at some level and I dare say quit their faith because of.
    There are loads of ways the Church has fallen captive to this not the least of which is authoritarian parenting to the Sheperding Movement in the 70s. .
    My husband walked away from his faith as a young man frustrated and disallusioned by the discipline his parents gave out taken without reservation by the Youth Pastor a lot of which was bad but taken because they just assumed he walked in a pure authority which he did not. Thankfully my husband has been healed of all that and walking in victory!
    With so many nuances to each persons story it’s hard to address each one in a blog but with voices like yours leading others to freedom in Christ it’s a great start!
    I pray the LORD will continue to use you mightily in this area.

    • March 7, 2017 at 11:43 am

      Hi Terry. First off, thank you so much for your kind words. You are so right about the problematic way that authority was and many times still is. But I’m so happy that your husband’s story turned out the way that it did. God’s grace proved greater than the abuse in both our lives it seems. Thank you again.


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