Lessons from the Korean Church – Respecting Your Elders

A son’s first beer with his dad. It’s meant to be a memorable experience, a right of passage into manhood.

Instead, what should’ve been some quality father-son time became another lesson in Confucian family ethics.

I don’t remember the exact timing, but I remember the exact words. I was visiting my family in Korea over the summer and my dad offered to buy me a drink. The waitress brought us our pitcher of beer and I quickly filled my glass and offered my dad some as well. I then lifted my glass in excitement and yelled, “Gun bae!” The beer was already in my mouth by then, but my dad’s glass was still on the table.

He went on to let me know the three things I had done wrong:

  1. I filled my glass first.
  2. I used only one hand to fill his glass, and not two.
  3. I looked at him, my elder, while drinking, instead of turning my head to show respect.

By this point, my non-Korean readers are confused, while my Korean readers are shaking their heads at my cultural ignorance. This is actually standard practice in Korean culture. My family is also very traditional. Since my sister and I are the first Christians on either side of our family (as far as I can tell), the dominating religion/philosophy has always been Confucianism.

sebaeRespecting your elders is huge in Confucianism, and therefore in Korean society. I still remember the humiliating experiences of visiting my grandparents in Korea and having to perform full bows (sebae or kowtow) in front of them. I hated this. I hated how my white friends could speak to their grandparents almost as friends or at least as peers, while I had to bow before mine like they were gods. My friends received toys from their grandparents. I received a book on learning Hanja (Chinese characters) … in the 4th grade!

To get a sense for how “respect” is completely second-nature for Koreans, you only have to learn a bit of the language. In the Korean language there is no way to politely address an elder in the second person. You always address an elder or superior in the third person. When talking with my grandma, I would say, “Grandmother is doing well?” when talking to her OR when talking about her with someone else. I could never say, “You are doing well?” This just goes to show that deference and respect are deeply ingrained in the way Koreans think, act, and even speak.

How does this influence the Korean church?

This culture of respect carries over into the Korean church. In the church, you show respect to your elders (aka. those who are older) by going out of your way to respect their wishes. The opinions of those who are older often carry more weight and as someone who is younger in the church, you must learn when to speak up and when to humbly listen. Within these respectability politics, you have to navigate the delicate balance of how to correct an elder while doing so in a respectful way.

Often, this desire for respect can manifest in pride. Those who are older can abuse their need for respect by failing to ever listen to those who are younger. Bitterness can grow among the older congregants when they feel that the church is honoring the wishes of the younger congregants before their own.

While many Korean-Americans have experienced what they see as the negative aspects of this, there are many things to learn from this emphasis on respect. In Korean culture (no less in the church), those who are older often treat those who are younger as younger siblings. This means elders often go out of their way to take care of those who are younger – by meeting their needs, watching out for them, encouraging them, rebuking them, etc. This can seem condescending in an American context, but the loving care of an older congregant to a younger congregant reflects how the church is meant to be a spiritual family. When older congregants actually invest in the lives of younger congregants, things can get messy; younger congregants may see this as too invasive, or conflicts may arise when older congregants speak the truth, but without love. No family is perfect, but a family is different from a group of peers who simply gather once a week to get their weekly spiritual fix. A family should be made up of people who are willing to risk hurt by learning to rebuke and reprove.

There is also a biblical precedent for respecting elders that (while often abused in Korean churches) is sometimes entirely lacking in American churches.

1 Timothy 5:1 – Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers,

1 Peter 5:5 – In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders.

I was shocked when I went to a white church for the first time and the pastor asked me to call him by his first name. This is unthinkable in Korean (even most Korean-American) churches, where everyone is addressed by their title (Pastor, Reverend, Pastor’s Wife, etc.). In Korean churches, pastors are often seen as paragons of wisdom, and their opinions on a host of subjects carry much weight. Compare this with some American churches where pastors are seen as peers who must earn the respect of their congregants before they will submit to them. If God has called our pastors to shepherd us and have authority over us, in what sense can we really say they are our peers? What does it look like to show them respect in a biblical way? These are some things to think about.

I’ve heard stories of Korean missionaries who were unable to work with their American brothers and sisters in Christ. We’re quick to point the finger at these hot-headed Koreans, and perhaps some of that is warranted. But I wonder how many of these conflicts arise due to a misunderstanding about the importance of respect in Korean culture.

The next time you interact with Korean brothers and sisters in Christ, consider whether there is anything you can learn from them about leadership, respect, and what it means to be a family. If you’re not Korean, consider asking them about what it means to respect those in authority before working with them. Especially in an international context, where different cultures will inevitably clash, it’s important to further the unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:3) through mutual understanding. There is much in the Korean church that is broken, but there is also much we can learn from both its successes and failures.

Mark Jeong

Mark was born in South Korea, but grew up in the humble state of New Jersey. Mark's passion is to grow in his love for God and his neighbor as he learns to read both the Bible and the world in light of each other. He and his wife currently reside in New York City.

3 thoughts on “Lessons from the Korean Church – Respecting Your Elders

  • November 15, 2015 at 8:54 am

    Loved reading this article Mark.

    • November 15, 2015 at 9:37 am

      Thanks Joe!

  • January 19, 2016 at 11:05 am

    Hello Mark,
    I am a fellow Korean American Christian living in NYC and would love for the opportunity to hear more about you via email. Please reach out if you have a chance.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.