Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church
“So what is the minimum that it takes to call yourself a Mennonite church?” Hyun Hur asked with a twinkle in his eye. But behind the query was an unmistakable seriousness.
For nearly a decade, Hyun and Sue Park-Hur, his wife, have devoted themselves to mission work in Korean contexts, most recently as directors of ReconciliAsian, a Mennonite peace center in Los Angeles.
Although Hyun has read the classics of Anabaptist-Mennonite history and theology, studied under Wilbert Shenk at Fuller Theological Seminary, participated in several Mennonite Church USA national conventions and co-pastors the Mountain View Mennonite Church, the question of what “qualifies” a Korean congregation as a bona fide Anabaptist or Mennonite church is not fully resolved.
In many regards, the Korean Anabaptist movement that provides the context for Hyun and Sue’s work is the ideal model for church growth in the global Anabaptist-Mennonite fellowship.
In the early 1990s, Lee Yoon Shik heard about Mennonites from a teacher who had encountered Mennonite Central Committee volunteers at a South Korean vocational school decades earlier.
After several years of study at Canadian Mennonite Bible College, Shik returned to his home in Chun Cheon and met for study and prayer with several other Christians—many of them university professors—who were disillusioned with the hierarchical and militaristic nature of the Korean church.
As Kyong-Jung Kim describes the church’s origins in Churches Engage Asian Traditions (Mennonite Global History Series, 2011), the group’s primary question was, What is the nature of the New Testament church, and how can we bring that church into our lives? In 1996, Shik and his friends founded Jesus Village Church, the first self-identified Anabaptist church in Korea.
In the years since then, the development of an indigenous Korean Anabaptist movement has been remarkable. With support from Mennonite Church Canada Witness, local leaders established the Korean Anabaptist Center to gather resources, respond to inquiries and provide training in Anabaptist theology.
A second congregation, Grace and Peace Mennonite Church, soon emerged in Seoul. Other projects followed: a language school called Connexus, a publishing house specializing in translations, a periodical (The Korean Anabaptist Journal) and the Korean Peace Institute. More recently, in the central and southern part of the peninsula, several new house churches have emerged who are also hungry for Anabaptist teaching.
In November 2009, Hyun Hur helped establish the Korean Anabaptist Fellowship to provide supportive relationships among Korean church leaders.
By any objective measure, the level of commitment and creativity evident within this fledgling movement is cause for celebration. Yet, not surprisingly, the Korean Anabaptist movement has also experienced some growing pains. Church leaders, who come from a variety of denominational backgrounds, struggle every day with the question of how to contextualize Anabaptist theology within traditional Korean culture.
For example, military conscription in South Korea is compulsory, with no possibility for alternative service. Only one Christian group—generally regarded as a cult in South Korea—has practiced conscientious objection, which brings with it a jail sentence and lifelong social consequences. How quickly should Korean Anabaptist congregations marginalize themselves by publically advocating for this position?
Equally complicated is the question of church polity. The Korean Anabaptist movement today consists of several established congregations, a number of house fellowships, a host of programs and many interested individuals. Whereas the Korean Anabaptist Center has a strong academic orientation, with many connections to North American Mennonites, the younger fellowships that have emerged elsewhere in the country have a different background and cultural flavor.
What sort of church structures best serve the identity of the whole group? And who should be empowered to determine these questions? As Hyun and other Korean church leaders have discovered, the teachings of Jesus and the early church, the story of the 16th-century Anabaptists and the texts of Mennonite theologians do not provide simple answers to all the practical, often messy, questions of daily church life.
Ultimately, the questions the Korean Anabaptist Fellowship are struggling with are our questions as well: How do we appropriately engage our cultural context? What shape and form will we give our convictions? What does it mean to be church amid our differences?
In the end, we’re all in this together.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.