Historical Factors That Influenced the Deductive Preaching Style in the Korean Church



It would be difficult to mention with one sentence why deductive preaching style is dominant in the Korean church. There must be an enormous complexity that came from diverse contexts throughout the whole history of Korea. However, I focus on a specific historical factor, Confucianism which has had huge influence on all areas in Korea.

The Influence of Confucianism

The factor that affects the predominance of the deductive form of preaching in contemporary Korea is Confucianism. Prior to the introduction of Western powers into East Asia in the mid-nineteenth century, the Confucian permeation was predominant in the art of governance, the form and content of elite education, and the moral discourse of the populace. China, Korea, and Japan were all distinctively Confucian countries. Moreover, Vietnam, and Singapore in Southeast Asia have also been under Confucian influence.1 Therefore, Confucianism cannot be separated from any aspect of Korean society. Jung Young Lee, a former professor at Drew Theological Seminary, describes the relationship between Confucianism and Koreans by saying2:

Confucianism is more than a religion, for it controls and legitimates the very fabric of personal, social, and political behaviors. Confucianism has been a way of life for the Korean people for more than six hundred years.

According to the survey in 1984, done by Jang Tae Keum, only 0.5% of the Korean population said that their identity was Confucian while 91.7% of Koreans answered their behavior and thinking pattern were influenced by Confucianism. This means that Confucianism already lost its significant position as an ideology in Korea but it still strongly works in almost every aspect of Koreans’ consciousness. Whether Koreans (especially Korean Christians) would not accept that or not, the influence of Confucianism is still powerful in Korea.3 As many other religions or ideologies did and do in other countries, Confucianism also has both positive and negative roles in Korean Christianity. The positive roles of Confucianism in Korean Christianity are as follows. First, the concept of “天 (Heaven or ultimate existence)” of Confucianism which means a divinity surpassing everything, helped in the early 20th century Koreans to accept God who is omniscience and omnipotence also in Christianity when it was introduced to Koreans. For Confucian people, “天” is a sovereign who is reigning over everything in the world. “天” gives awards to those whose deeds are good and punishes those whose deeds are evil. Second, from this almighty-divinity concept, the early Korean Christians absorbed Christian ethics without difficulty.4 Third, ritual is crucial for Confucians. “孝” (filial duty) is the foundation of Confucianism ethics. The best way to fulfill this “孝” is a ritual. There are many kinds of rituals, but every ritual has its own meaning. This resulted in a ferventness of Korean Christians in attending worship service. No matter how many services are in their church, they want to attend as many as they can and they are encouraged to do so by ministers.5 As we saw, Confucianism has had positive roles in the history of Korean Church. All Confucian ethical behaviors described here were proclaimed to congregation through the preachers and in this situation deductive preaching worked better than any other preaching forms. However, Confucianism is being criticized in many ways. In particular, its contribution to building up hierarchical structure in Korea and the Korean Church cannot be easily measured.

Confucianism and its Hierarchical Structure

The Three Bonds and the Five Relationships

Tung Chung-shu (179-104 BC) was a Chinese scholar in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-270AD). He was traditionally associated with the promotion of Confucianism as the official ideology of the Chinese imperial state. He dedicated himself for the reinforcement of the reign of the emperor and centralization of imperial power by adapting the theory of “the Son of Heaven.”6 His reasoning is simple. “The Son of Heaven was endowed with the will of Heaven. Therefore, feudal lords must obey the will of the Son of Heaven. All the servants and vassals must obey their ruler. In the same way, sons must listen to fathers, and wives must obey their husbands. Hence, those who are given orders by their masters and obey them eventually serve Heaven.”

Moreover, the three bonds (san-kang/sangang) and the five relationships (wu-lun/wulun) appeared and became the basic Confucian moral norms. The Three Bonds explain the authority of the ruler over the minister, the father over the son, and the husband over the wife. The Han dynasty did its best to transform Confucian ethics into a political ideology. One of the efforts was to stress the Three Bonds in order to promote them as the core curriculum for moral education. Obviously, the Three Bonds underscore the hierarchical relationship as an inviolable principle for maintaining social order.7 The Five Relationships appeared in the Book of Mencius. 1) the relationship between a father and a son is one of love, 2) the relationship between a ruler and a subject is one of loyalty, 3) the relationship between a husband and a wife is one of mutual respect, 4) the relationship between an elder and an younger is one of order and discipline, 5) the relationship between friends is one of trust.8

The Five Relationships seem to explain all human relationships so that we can live harmoniously. However, they also consolidated the structure of hierarchy in Korea. Even the notion of sin was not about god or faith, but about whether the person was obedient or not according to the relationships.9

Choseon Dynasty and the Establishment of Hierarchical Structure

This ideology was also fatal to Korea right after Seonggyeo Lee, the founder of Choseon dynasty (1392-1897), established Choseon in 1392. During the previous Koryo dynasty (918-1392), Buddhism had been a state religion but King Taejo10 observed that all the local feudal lords and Buddhist priesthoods weakened the power of king. He decided to utilize Confucianism in order to intensify his regal power by appointing Dojeon Cheong, a highly respected Confucian scholar as a high official and legal advisor. He was aware that he needed something to support his kingship more strongly. King Taejo used Confucianism as the basic source of education. Additionally, there was a viewpoint to see the king as the Son of Heaven in Confucianism. This satisfied King Taejo. Dojeon Cheong set out a logical argument that “The king rules everything instead of Heaven and appoints vassals and assigns people as he wants for the ordered kingdom.”11

Confucianism and Deductive Preaching

Along with the hierarchical social structure based on the concept of “the Son of Heaven” and the Three Bonds and the Five Relationships, the higher one was, the more authority one had in Choseon dynasty. This tradition handed down from age to age is tied up with the stagnant hierarchy. This phenomenon caused by a distorted understanding of authority which is still observable in the contemporary church, when the preacher gives a sermon. This is the important factor that makes deductive preaching style prevail in Korea.

Preacher’s Authority in Confucian Korea

In many cases, the deductive preaching style has a deep connection to the preacher’s authority in Korea. We will look at two dimensions.

i. Authority as the Head of the Community

In terms of the preacher’s authority, Jung Young Lee made an interesting interpretation connected to the doctrine of Confucianism in his book, Korean Preaching: An Interpretation. In Korea, a senior pastor is often considered as the “head of the community” in a hierarchical structure which matches the father figure as the “head of the family” in Confucian family. Traditionally, fathers have had the utmost authority within a family in Korea. Other family members were supposed to respect the father and listen to him. It was the best way to maintain the family as beautiful and healthy. The unconditional obedience to the head of the family is a typical attitude of Confucian mentality.12 In the same way, a preacher can have the highest authority in church; he can speak in the pulpit without considering his congregation’s response because the virtue that congregation should have is to listen to the preacher and obey.

ii. Authority as a Servant of God

In Korea, a pastor is often depicted as a servant of God. The meaning of “servant of God” should be interpreted as one who dedicates oneself to God and God’s people. However, like the king’s position between Heaven and people in the Choseon dynasty, some pastors consider themselves to be somewhere between God and the congregation.13 With the authority of a ruler between God and people, preachers sometimes assume the privilege to speak the Word of God. Since a sermon is conducted with the authority of God, listeners are supposed to be obedient to their speaker no matter what message is given.

It is said that one commits sin before God if one opposes the proclaimed sermon from the preacher, because the word of the preacher in the pulpit is strongly believed as the Word of God. In this process, the listeners are not invited to think for themselves.14


We looked at how Confucianism influenced the deductive preaching form in the Korean church. Its hierarchical structure is deeply permeated into the Korean society including the Korean church and gave implication that preacher has the authority as the head of church and a servant of God like the Son of Heaven. As a result, preaching style became deductive as the teachers deliver their teachings to their students in Confucian education structure.


Jinseok Kim

PhD Candidate in Homiletics and Performance

Graduate Theological Union




  1. Wei-Ming Tu, “Confucius and Confucianism”, in Confucianism and the Family edited by Walter H. Slote and George A. Devos (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 3. 
  2. Jung Young Lee, Korean Preaching: An Interpretation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 93. 
  3. Jaekwang Key, “Influence of Confucian Culture on the formation of the Korean Church Leadership: focus on the influence of Confucian Authoritarianism,” Theology and Praxis, v. 20, (2010), 86. 
  4. Youngyil Kim, “The Growth of the Korean Church and Confucian Culture,” Christian Social Ethics, v. 16, (2008), 198-199. 
  5. Chang Joon Woo, “A Study on the Spread of Gospel Based on the Korean’s Consciousness Structure: Focused on the Korean’s Unique Emotion-Cheong” (D.Min dissertation, Seoul Theological University, 2004), 82. 
  6. Heaven mentioned here does not mean necessarily specific God or gods but transcendent existence. 
  7. Wei-Ming Tu, “Probing the Three Bonds and Five Relationships,” 122-121. 
  8. Wei-Ming Tu, “Probing the Three Bonds and Five Relationships,” 124-129. 
  9. ChangJoon Woo, “A Study of the Spread of Gospel,” 85. 
  10. Taejo is another way to call the first king of Choseon dynasty. 
  11. Kyeong-il, Kim, Confucius must die and Korea will survive (Seoul: Bada, 1999), 118. 
  12. Jung Young Lee, Korean Preaching: An Interpretation, 94-95. 
  13. Jung Ylung Lee, Korean Preaching: An Interpretation, 96. 
  14. SeongKee Kim, “The Heretical Elements in Worship of the Korean Church” (Master’s thesis, Presbyterian Seminary, 1990), 48. 

Categories: (M) Article

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