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5 min

Why Korea’s Christian churches are leading the anti-gay charge

And how a handful of LGBT-affirming churches are fighting back

Reverend Daniel Payne, of the Open Doors Metropolitan Community Church in South Korea, reflects before a biblical-text debate in Seoul.  Credit: Dave Hazzan

On the third floor of the monstrous Hamilton Hotel in Seoul, South Korea, Reverend Daniel Payne is dying for a cigarette.

For two hours, the 36-year-old preacher from Pensacola, Florida, has been debating Pastor Paul Warren, 32, on whether or not the Bible condemns homosexuality. For Payne, who is gay and leads Korea’s Open Doors Metropolitan Community Church, the answer is clear — no, it does not.

Warren, who leads the Sojourn Church in Incheon, disagrees.

“This is the first I’ve seen such a narrow view of Leviticus,” Warren says, referring to the famous passage about how “you shall not lie with a man as with a woman.”

Payne insists the passage must be read in the context of Egyptian temple prostitution, before finally getting his smoke break.

The ministers soon resume their debate, pouring over a series of biblical texts — what Payne calls “the six clobber passages”: Genesis 1:27 (men and women created separately); Genesis 19:4 (Sodom and Gomorrah); Leviticus 18:22; 1 Timothy 1:10 (law against “sodomites”); 1 Corinthians 6:9 (more about sodomites); and Romans 1:21 (“degrading passions” and the like). They discuss translations, mistranslations, historical context or lack thereof.

From Payne’s perspective, the debate went well. He even went out for dinner afterwards with Warren.

“I think he’s a really nice person,” Payne says about Warren. “We disagree on almost every point of theology, but he’s fun to eat with.”

***

Fun to eat with or not, Warren is part of a growing group in South Korea: the evangelical Christian.

Christianity has been remarkably successful in South Korea. A traditionally Buddhist and Confucian country, in 1945 only two percent of the country was Christian. By 2014 it was 30 percent, and most of that number is made of evangelical Protestants, who often occupy top positions in business, government, and academia.

Skylines in Korea are now dotted with crosses; walk into any public square and you will often walk out with a handful of Christian pamphlets, pens, and tissue packets. Huge concrete cathedrals, antithetical to all good taste, appear every few blocks.

South Korea sends more missionaries abroad than any other country except the US. And as demonstrated by the protests at this year’s Pride in Seoul in June, many of these Christians are rabidly homophobic.

Payne started the Open Doors church in 2011 to counter the narrative that Christianity and homophobia must go hand in hand. Part of the Progressive Christian Alliance and the Metropolitan Community Church, it believes in “a community seeking to live out the radical love of Jesus Christ.”

The congregation meets in a small basement in the foreigner-heavy neighbourhood of Haebangchon. Though they are not an exclusively LGBT church, most of the congregants are queer.

On the first Sunday morning in August 2015, Payne’s co-pastor, Craig Bartlett, 50, spoke from John 6:24-35, in a sermon partly inspired by a Rowan Atkinson sketch. The communion table was covered in a rainbow flag, and Bartlett wore a rainbow flag pin on his vestments.

The congregation is small, negligible when compared to the 830,000 Pentecostals who attend the Yoido Full Gospel Church, the largest church in Korea (and by some estimates, the world).

The Open Door church is a mix of both foreign nationals and Koreans. Sermons are translated into both languages. Many of the congregants, especially the Koreans, are recovering evangelicals, who switched churches because of their sexual orientations.

“I’d say that’s the most common story, especially among our Korean congregants,” Payne says.

***

Payne tells me about growing up in the part of Florida he calls “Florabama,” in the Free Will Baptist Church, a denomination he says is even more conservative than the more common Southern Baptists.

“I wasn’t exactly closeted,” he says. “Some of my friends knew. My parents knew from when I was 16. They figured it out.”

He was sent to “Christian counselling,” ex-gay therapy, and married a woman at 19, in “the culmination of that ex-gay therapy.”

I ask if he really believed he was no longer gay. “At that point I really wanted to be. But I was still very much attracted to guys.” They went off as missionaries to southwest China for a year, but finally divorced and Payne moved to Korea to teach.

“And for a good four, almost five years, I considered myself an atheist,” he says. “I wanted nothing to do with religion at all.” He says it was necessary for him to take this time to “detox,” before returning to a whole different kind of church.

For his part, Bartlett, originally from Corner Brook, Newfoundland, left the United Church of Canada in the mid-’90s for personal reasons, moved to Korea and married a Korean woman.

Chris Park, a 24-year-old Korean, has been going to their church for four years. Before that, he attended Church of God, a large denomination founded in Korea in 1964, but says he felt pressure to hide his true self there, given their conviction that homosexuality is a sin.

He says he’s much more comfortable at the Open Door church.

“I wanted to find the truth, the truth being either me being okay living as a gay Christian, or me being converted into a good, heterosexual Christian,” says Lee June-young, 28, who now sits on the church’s board and helps with translation. “It was either one of the other. There was no not being Christian.”

***

Although Confucianism and nationalism both play a role in Korean homophobia, it’s the churches that have led the anti-gay movement here.

They are by far the most visible presence at anti-gay protests, and nearly every LGBT person I’ve spoken to agrees that the churches are leading the way.

“I get emails every once in a while from a conservative pastor here and there, constantly quoting the same scriptures to me as if I don’t know them already,” Payne says, laughing. “It drives me crazy.”

Payne and Bartlett admit there’s only so much they can do, being foreigners in a still largely homogeneous country. Payne would like to hand his position to a Korean.

“But in order for that to be a possibility, you would have to have that unknown quotient, the Korean pastor who is willing to come out of the closet,” Bartlett says.

Payne and Bartlett say there are at least three other LGBT-affirming denominations in Korea now, all run by straight Koreans. At Pride, Father Zakias Min Kim, of Pilgrimage Anglican Church, led a “human chain” of 130 different religious organizations that support LGBT rights.

Bartlett attributes the rise in vocal Christian-church opposition to homosexuality to the increasing visibility of the gay community itself.

“It’s similar to what happened in the West 40 or 50 years ago,” he says. “When the sexual minority communities decided they weren’t going to take it anymore, it became an issue, and people had to decide which side they were on.”

“I think it’s because 10 years ago most people were in the closet,” Payne says. “More people are coming out and it’s becoming more of a social issue.”

“A couple government people in the past two or three years have recommended non-discrimination laws, which have flopped,” he notes, “but I think just recommending those — people have alerted conservative Christians to the fact we’re here and are starting to demand equality.”

“Koreans did not grow up with Will and Grace like I did,” Warren says, “and their reaction to this issue is emotional and unthinking.”

Warren says he understands why some Korean churches may feel pressured to support something they consider immoral — he claims “western Christians . . . have lost their jobs or received huge fines just for not celebrating the LGBT movement.”

But he also says that he and Payne “have stood together on speaking out against misinformation from the protesters, since Christians of all people should be bound by honesty.”

For his part, Warren attended this year’s Pride in Seoul — “without protesting and without celebrating,” he says.