WOMEN IN KOREAN AMERICAN CHURCHES
(photo from my church Hyungjae in Seattle, WA)
When Confucianism was the dominant ideology in Korea, women were degraded almost to the status of slaves in the patriarchal ruling system. The introduction of Christianity offered opportunities for Korean women to get educated and made them recognize themselves as human beings by introducing the idea of equality among people. The Korean Church liberated women from servitude and led to women making important contributions to the Church. As women took active roles in the church, a more systematic organization was needed for women’s activities and this led to the National Organization of the Korean Presbyterian Women in 1928. This organization still has an important place in all ministries of Presbyterian churches in Korea.
Even though women in Korean churches have played important roles in the past and it seems that the church itself liberated women from their servitude, presently they are excluded from any policy or decision-making policies in the church. Even though women comprise 70% of the Korean and Korean American church congregations, they are subjected and confined to duties in the kitchen and other menial roles. “The situation of women today in the Korean church, particularly in the PCK, is regrettable. Compared with earlier days, women are more alienated and restricted. Attitudes towards women in the church are still strongly controlled by traditional ideas. They are expected to be satisfied with a subordinate role as second-class citizens”(Oh, 1992). In an interview with men and women in a Korean American church, many respondents believed that men and women were meant to have different roles and that the men should be the “head.” Many cited that the Bible justifies male authority. Here are some interviews conducted by Antony Alumkal in his article “Preserving Patriarchy: Assimilation, Gender Norms, and Second-Generation Korean American Evangelicals”:
A typical response from a male church member:
Q: Do you think men and women are meant to fulfill different roles in society?
A: Yes, I do. I don't want to sound chauvinistic, but I do believe that men should be the head of the family as Christ is the head of the church. And I think women should be very supportive of their husbands and be submissive. But I think husbands should really love their wives a great deal so that they have no problem being submissive, because the husband won't take advantage of that.
A female respondent offered her support for the principle of male headship in the
family, again with some qualifications:
Q: Do you believe that men should be the "head of the household" or do you think husbands and wives should be equal partners?
A: I don't think spouses are equal. I mean, they are, but the husband is the head of the house. I think it says that in the Bible. Before I didn't believe it, but now I've gained more wisdom(Alumkal, 2004).
Many members of both the Korean and Korean American church have strict hierarchical views for roles in the church. Many believe that positions of high leadership in the church-pastor and elder- are appropriate only for men(Alumkal, 2004). Even though the Presbyterian Church of Korea finally passed a bill permitting the ordination of woman after 60 years of debate(Sa, 1995), women in leadership roles are almost nonexistent.
One of the problems and a reason why women’s roles in the Korean and Korean American church are not improving is because the women refuse to believe they are victims. Jung Ha Kim’s book, Bridge-Makers and Cross-Bearers: Korean-American Women and the Church discusses how women in the church are silent to protect their dignity and resist oppression. She interviews women to see how they find meaning in their lives and what strategies they use to keep their dignity in a hierarchically and patriarchically institution of the Korean-American church. She finds that they refuse to see themselves as victims aht that “women in the Korean-American multicultural context reclaim the tradition of kinship relations in shaping their gender identities as daughters, wives, and mothers. Korean-American Christian women are, therefore, the "bridgemakers" of the two cultures and the "cross-bearers" who strive to practice the ideals of both Christian self denial and Confucian debasement”(Lee, 1998).