[Interview] South Korean churchgoers are “slaves to the tithe”

Posted on : 2016-11-20 11:40 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Practice of donating 10% of income to church has been ended in other countries, but S. Korean churches still getting rich off their congregants
Rev. Ahn Yong-su
Rev. Ahn Yong-su

Among South Korean Christians, the tithe is the measure of your faith. Churchgoers are required to tithe, or in other words to donate 10% of their income to the church they attend. The names of church members who have tithed are printed in the weekly church bulletin, and some churches even print the amount of the tithe. Christians who can‘t afford to tithe are racked with guilt and sometimes even stop going to church altogether. Most churches are funded by their members’ tithes.

One pastor says that Christians shouldn’t be forced to tithe because it’s not biblical. Rev. Ahn Yong-su, 64, argues in his recent book “The Tithe Nailed to the Cross” (published by Books of Peace) that tithing is ruining the South Korean church. Ahn graduated from a South Korean seminary and did a master’s degree in biblical studies at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where he learned how to interpret classical documents.

On Nov. 10, the Hankyoreh met Ahn at Sarang Community Church in Seoul’s Gangnam District. He claims to be the first person in South Korea to provide a clear explication of tithing.

There’s a reason why Ahn wanted to meet at Sarang Community Church - it’s a prime example, he says, of a church that has been built on squeezing tithes from its members. Located on pricey Gangnam real estate, it is one of South Korea’s best-known megachurches.

“These days, pastors are the kings of the church, and churchgoers are little better than slaves to the tithe. Pastors openly say that you’ll get rich and be blessed if you tithe and that you’ll be punished and go to hell if you don’t. In South Korea, tithing is a pretty close substitute for the indulgences that the church used to sell back in the Middle Ages,” Ahn said.

In most countries, the compulsory tithe has disappeared, Ahn said, and South Korea is the only place where it survives. He says that South Korean pastors have developed various arguments to inculcate tithing in their congregations.

“Pastors have treated tithing as a standard for judging people’s faith. You need faith to receive the salvation that opens the door to heaven, and pastors say that people with faith must tithe. In other words, you’ve got to tithe if you want to go to heaven. They’ve created a link between faith, salvation and tithing,” Ahn said.

“Pastors also say that people who don’t tithe are shamelessly stealing from God. The tithe is seen as representing your loyalty to God, and you have to tithe above a certain amount in order to become an elder, deacon or deaconess. Pastors have gotten in the habit of publishing lists of people who tithe and the amount that they tithe on the grounds that tithing is a beautiful thing. Poor people who can’t tithe much or at all are treated like unbelievers. Of course, pastors don’t say anything about where or how they use the money that people are tithing.”

According to Ahn, this tithing culture is a blend of twisted capitalism, corrupt economics, psychological anxiety and fear. He explains that people who approach their pastors with doubts about the biblical grounds for tithing have all been ostracized as “reactionary elements in the body of Christ,” and pastors have also blamed tithing on their seminary professors, who supposedly taught them to collect it. Christians end up thinking that they have fulfilled all their responsibilities as believers by tithing and become apathetic to the people who are suffering around them, he says.

First of all, Ahn argues that the very concept of tithing is mistaken. The first time that tithing is mentioned in the Bible is in the Old Testament, when Abraham gives a tithe to express his gratitude to the king and priest of Jerusalem for fighting a war to save his nephew Lot. During this episode, the tithe represented the spoils of war. Currency existed at the time, but this tithe did not consist of money, Ahn says.

Furthermore, the tithe was more of a symbolic amount, rather than meaning exactly 10% of one’s income. In Mesopotamian culture, people often voluntarily gave a tithe as a symbol of respect or obedience. Later, people gave a tithe of their crops and livestock as a profession of their faith.

Ahn draws attention to the fact that tithing is not mentioned in the book of Exodus. Even after the Israelites escape from grave danger through the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, there is no record that they gave a tithe, he says. Furthermore, passages in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy that mention tithing are not talking about a gift of money but rather of crops and livestock, which signify faith and sincerity. Furthermore, when the priests received goods in the form of tithes, they distributed it to the needy, rather than leaving it to their children. They didn’t use the tithe to build huge churches as we see today, Ahn noted.

Ahn became a pastor because, as he says, “I had no option but to become a man of religion.” While Ahn’s older brother was fighting in the Vietnam War in the 1970s, he was falsely accused of having defected to North Korea. As a result, Ahn (who was in a middle school at the time) and his entire family were regarded as being guilty by association and suffered greatly. Ahn’s father was fired from his teaching position and ended up dying of the resulting frustration. Ahn graduated from Seoul National University of Education and worked at an elementary school until 1980, when he too was let go.

After graduating once again with a degree in religious education from Chongshin University, Ahn enrolled in graduate school at Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary. Once the South Korean government stopped doing background checks for passport applications, Ahn was finally able to study abroad in the UK. Ahn‘s stubborn resolve to clear his brother’s name paid off when the government recognized in 2009 (43 years later) that Ahn Hak-su had been abducted by North Korea during the Vietnam War.

These days, Ahn is preaching at a small community called the Peaceful Tree Church, which holds its services in a seminar room that it rents out. “As churches get bigger and bigger, pastors give in to the temptation of relying on tithes, and they end up using this to cover their living expenses, send their children to study overseas and to build their churches. If we‘re going to live lives of religious freedom, we need to get rid of tithing and let people give freely and voluntarily, from the heart,” he said.

By Lee Kil-woo, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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