Abuse, Patriarchy and Korean Paternalism

It is my contention that Eternal Functional Subordination 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

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!”


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.

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