An attempt at a [documentation] of the most basic problems of the UBF and their causes, [first]compiled in June 2004 by the webservant of these pages after many talks and with the input and help of former members.
Presently you can find a vast number of reports and complaints about UBF on the Internet. The question arises, where can the real causes and fundamental problems of UBF be found? How can such serious spiritual abuse exist in a group that seemingly comes across as so biblical and friendly?
Many former UBF members agree that nearly all problems basically stem from a disastrous mixture of three dangerous, unbiblical elements:
- authoritarianism extremely domineering over the members,
- Confucianism of the Korean members that has not been overcome,
- and the leadership and influence of a power monger leader [chapter director/missionary].
These three core problems, which are connected with each other, are described more precisely in the following, without giving extensive Biblical substantiations, since these have been already sufficiently explained elsewhere. In conclusion, some of the bitter fruits are specified which basically stem from these core problems.
UBF is marked by hierarchical, authoritarian structures and behavior patterns which can be found in several layers. The first layer is the church leadership, if you want to call the individual UBF groups existing in university cities “churches” (even UBF calls them “chapters,” not “churches”). These groups are always led by one single “chapter leader” who makes all decisions and under whom everybody has to be subordinate. Some chapters have a kind of “council of elders,” but they have no meaning in practice. Some UBF chapters have small subchapters trying to “pioneer” the universities near a main chapter. Such subchapters often consist only of one married couple. This is a so-called “house church” in UBF. Of course the subchapters are subordinate to the main chapter in the hierarchy. The chapter leaders of the main chapter are subordinated to the national director who in turn is subordinate to the “general director” of the UBF, where all roads converge. Since the foundation of the UBF in the year 1962 until his death in the year 2002, Samuel Lee played this role of the highest authority; after him, this role was taken over by the co-founder of the UBF, Sarah Barry. In Europe, there exists an additional level of the “European director” above the national director, currently occupied by Kaleb Hong in Heidelberg UBF.
In addition to this pyramid-shaped system of UBF chapters and their leaders, there is a second layer of authoritarian structure, resulting from the “shepherd-sheep” relations peculiar to UBF. These shepherd-sheep relations make up a major source of problems at UBF. The goal of UBF’s so-called campus mission and evangelization is actually making the students into members of the UBF. Every invited student gets a personal “shepherd” assigned to him, usually the one by whom the “sheep” was invited. Then begins the official shepherd-sheep relationship. The student is required to take part in “one-to-one Bible study” sessions every week without any lapses. In the beginning, the relationship is nice and kind, but then it becomes controlling and demanding. The sheep is effectively programmed to look up to the shepherd as an authority, and to obey him more and more. Only the older, completely loyal members and “missionaries” are allowed to take part in group Bible studies instead of the one-to-one Bible studies. All other members are obliged to take part in the weekly one-to-one Bible studies, and they must do so with their official shepherds. The roles of shepherd and sheep are steadfastly observed during the Bible studies. In this way, the sheep finally are led to permanent “absolute obedience” towards their shepherd and made dependent in a permanently one-sided one-to-one relationship. This unhealthy and dangerous system wasn’t invented by UBF. The so called “shepherding “ or “discipling” movement was somewhat popular in the USA during the foundation phase of UBF. Samuel Lee probably learned about this system of “disciple training” through copying aspects of the “Navigators,” and then implemented it in an even more extreme form in Korea.
This shepherding/discipling movement in the USA was very successful, measured in terms of number and dedication of the newly raised “disciples,” but there were harmful consequences of these unhealthy authoritarian one-to-one relationships, making the recruits into dependent people, and usually resulting in “spiritual abuse.” This became apparent very soon. In the long run, no disciples of Jesus were raised who served God voluntarily. What resulted were disciples of charismatic leaders and disciples of authoritarian systems, serving a system under compulsion. The other result was numerous little tyrants, who lorded it over these disciples as power mongers. When this became more and more apparent everywhere, most churches and even the originators of the shepherding movement dissociated themselves from it again and issued a statement of regret. Because of this, most of the hierarchical systems collapsed like a house of cards. In the end, the whole teaching and practice of the shepherding movement has been rejected almost everywhere, and only UBF and few other cult-like groups such as the “ICoC” are still practicing it.
But UBF was clinging to its shepherding system even after starting with trying to expand to an international movement under the name of “world mission.” One might believe that the reason for the UBF clinging to this problematic system could be that no such negative consequences emerged in Korea as the shepherding movement in the USA experienced. But this was not the case. The same and even worse abuse emerged in Korea, too. Interestingly, at the same time when the founders of the shepherding movement in the USA dissociated themselves again and apologized for this, the problems in the UBF had increased so badly that the second level of UBF chapter leaders in Korea, despite of their extreme reverence for loyalty that is hard to understand for westerners, had written an open letter to Samuel Lee in which they expressed their despair about all these grievances and the abuses by Samuel Lee. However, unlike the originators of the shepherding movement in the USA who showed themselves reasonable at the end, Samuel Lee continued to insist on his authoritarian system, calling this first criticism of UBF (or actually himself) in the 1970s a “rebellion” and incited the younger members against the critics, so that they had to leave UBF and found their own student mission named “Evangelical Students Fellowship” (ESF).
Besides the hierarchy of leaders and the authority structures arising from the shepherd-sheep relations there are also the hierarchies between “missionaries” (Koreans) and “shepherds” (natives), between elder and younger ones, between long-time or even founding members and new members, and between those who have a Ph.D. title and the normal “rank and file” members. Ph.D. is valued very much in UBF and Samuel Lee bought even two of them. Due to his top position in all these hierarchies Samuel Lee was beyond reproach in every regard and the topmost authority of UBF.
In UBF, the hierarchical, authoritarian system is labeled as the “spiritual order,” even equated with the order that God established when He created the world. The UBF spiritual order can never be questioned. Most UBF members are unaware that the Bible actually strictly forbids authoritarian and hierarchical church leadership, and that this was one of the most important issues Jesus wanted to explain to his disciples (cf. Mt 23:1-15, Mk 10:35-45, Lk 22:24-27; John 13:12-17). These problems are mentioned again and again in the letters of the New Testament. According to the Bible, all church members are supposed to be equal and “brothers.” There should never be an authoritarian leadership “top down.” There should be a serving leadership, and the head of the church shall be Jesus Christ. Of course the UBF leadership is claiming that they aren’t ruling, but serving, but the UBF practice is usually the exact opposite of what they claim. The one-man-leadership practice in UBF and the controlling shepherd-sheep relationships violate fundamental principles of church leadership by means of biblical eldership clearly outlined in the New Testament.
The UBF authoritarianism brings about people who live in dependence and bondage of other people. Rather than people living in the freedom of Christ, UBF produces dependent, robot-like creatures without real love. The bitter fruit of the spiritual abuse is visible wherever unbiblical authoritarianism is taught and exercised. Although people seemingly are led to repentance very quickly, they are not led to the freedom of Christ. They can neither discover nor develop their spiritual gifts, but live according to the schemes and demands of a system. UBF may be talking about “justification by the faith” but in the end recognizes for justification only the works stipulated by the system and the obedience towards the leaders. Once, a member of a group similar to UBF in the USA put the problem in a nutshell by saying: “They save you, and then enslave you.” The question is whether somebody in such a system who fears people more than he is fearing God hasn’t become even more “spiritually dead” than before when he was still “unbelieving.”
The question is really: “What kind of faith and which idea of God is actually produced by the authoritarianism in the UBF members?” Why does God, who wants to be addressed by His children as “Abba, dear Father.” (Rom 8:15) and gives them His Holy Spirit, why does such a God need authoritarian leaders who effectively act as mediators of His will and usurp God’s place in the lives of His children? When leaders in UBF are arranging marriages in UBF and are calling this “marriage by faith,” when you let your leader decide about your marriage partner, what kind of “faith” is this? In any case, faith in UBF is far different from the faith of an independent, responsible, free, prudential Christian, who depends on God alone. The UBF “marriage by faith” is only one of the most frequently mentioned examples showing how members of the UBF system are put under control entirely. Furthermore, the “Bible study” in UBF is completely one-sided and superficial. Although they are calling themselves “Bible teachers,” UBF members usually don’t have even basic theological knowledge, and have completely forgotten how to think and study independently, and their Bible studies are nothing more than internalizing the same predetermined “questionnaires” and “lessons” of the UBF every week. The UBF “Bible teachers” are merely repeating the same ideas that have been presented to them through repetition for many, many years at UBF.
In the end, a system which is marked by authoritarianism always leads to a “two-class society.” There are those who have authority and those who don’t. Completely different rules apply to the two groups. Those who have authority believe they are not accountable for their behavior any more. But they require all others to permanently give an account for all areas of their lives. This comes to life in the “testimonies” (also called “sogams”) typical for UBF, which have to be written every week and “shared” in front of all others in the group. The main point here is to repent that you have not been hard-working or obedient enough in the last week in the activities of UBF, and then promise that you want to do it much better next week. Of course you usually fail to do better and the weekly cycle starts anew. While the authoritarian leaders may be never criticized or judged, it is so to speak the business of UBF leaders to constantly criticize the “sheep” and to give them the feeling of being unworthy and guilty or not performing well enough in the sense of UBF. These leaders also believe they have the authority to punish the “subordinate class” in any way they choose. This is also called “training” or “raising up disciples” in UBF.
The hierarchical and authoritarian structure also makes UBF into a copying machine for people. Ideology, teaching, practices, methods and even mannerisms of the topmost leader (like the way of clearing his throat, squinting his eyes, or speaking in staccato) were copied by the other leaders and finally on all members. Psychological examinations of members of cult-like groups showed that actually only one single personality type – the personality of the leader – could be found in all members of the group. This is the case also in UBF. Even the way of dressing is specified. One almost could claim that UBF invented cloning, long time before the sheep Dolly was born. The present leader of the UBF describes in a letter from the year 1970 how Samuel Lee got this big copying machine going already at that time: “Mr. Lee called in 7 or 8 senior students and held a workshop on Genesis. Each student leader prepared a notebook, complete with questions for homework and 7 full lectures. Then each of these seniors led a similar workshop for 5 or 6 younger leaders. Everyone who studied was to teach someone else. Some of the younger leaders have taught 3 or 4 classmates, one at a time, and almost all of these have in turn taught someone else.” This way Mr. Lee effectively implanted his ideas directly into the heads of hundreds of members, some of whom are today’s UBF leaders. The copying mechanism is aided by the isolation of the UBF chapters from all other groups and churches, and the permanent preoccupation with themselves makes UBF a group that is “stewing in its own juices,” and where all patterns of thought and behavior are imitated only from other, higher ranking members of the group. You can definitely speak about social and spiritual inbreeding here, with the corresponding long-term negative consequences. While the first “testimonies” shared by “sheep” and new UBF members are often very interesting, refreshingly different, genuine and original, you can observe how these testimonies and the personality, over time, week by week, adjust to the UBF standard more and more. It is alarming to see how native members not only take on the UBF jargon, but even the mistakes in pronunciation and grammar of the Korean “missionaries” in the course of time. This copying mechanism is a clear characteristic and a negative consequence of the authoritarian structure of the UBF.
Connected with the authoritarianism in UBF is another problem, namely that there is no way in UBF for members to voice any criticism or to hold leaders accountable. The UBF leaders aren’t willing to accept any kind of accountability for their behavior, not even toward the members. They feel obligated towards their superior leaders only, and consequently, the topmost leader doesn’t feel responsible towards anybody at all. Criticism is categorically branded as “unspiritual.” Reports of spiritual abuse are covered up or called “slandering campaigns.” Critical members have only the two choices of either putting up with the abuses or leave UBF. It is demanded that you totally trusts the leaders as if they have been appointed as your “superiors” by God. A sufficient proof for this is seen in the fact that you have been invited to UBF and started to become a believer in this group. This fact alone is presented as reason for eternal obligation and gratitude. Regarding finances, no accountability is given to the members by the headquarters, in the form of a proper and complete financial report. Anyone asking questions with regard to financial things, is branded as only interested in money. No member wants to appear as being greedy for money (and most lower ranking members really are not interested in money), so nobody is asking questions. There was no control or supervision of the financial matters in UBF for decades (since the beginnings), with all of the offering money flowing towards the headquarters at the top of the pyramid-like system of UBF chapters. And at the top of the pyramid all money was personally controlled by Samuel Lee.
Once more: The higher somebody is standing in the hierarchy of the UBF, the more power and responsibility he has, but the less he is required to be accountable. While every “sheep” must give account to his shepherd why he or she doesn’t “bring the whole tithe,” doesn’t “write testimony” or “go fishing” regularly, a leader needs to give account only to the leader at the next higher level. And the topmost leader doesn’t need to be accountable to anybody any more, even if he has all the millions of dollars at his disposal which hard working members have sacrificed at tremendous personal sacrifice.
Even members on the “lower levels” feel they are holding a certain position in this system on which they are proud, particularly since they feel superior to all unbelievers and “lazy Christians.” Many problems started when UBF began to propagate “world mission.” While the Korean members had been only simple, poor people from a third world country, with little hope of experiencing anything special in their lives, now they could call themselves “missionaries” and be proud of this title. They could have a feeling of “conquering” and “mastering” the world through UBF. Anybody who traveled to a foreign country or only to a Korean island was allowed to call himself a “missionary.” (Genuine Christian mission usually doesn’t have to do with from where you are sent out and how far you have traveled, but whereto you have been sent out, e.g. to an unreached ethnic group, and whether you have a corresponding theological and missiological education, which nobody has in UBF.)
The long-standing experience of Christian Mission – independent of UBF – shows that in almost all cases, where missionaries have become long-term leaders in the local churches they founded, sooner or later this resulted in authority abuse and similar problems as can be found in UBF, too. It is therefore common practice outside of UBF that missionaries after some time move on again, handing over the work to native elders and pastors, and then seek for new fields of activity. This corresponds to biblical practice as can be found in the book of Acts. The longest time Paul spent in one church was three years. Paul never made himself a leader, but always appointed elders among the church members relatively soon. In UBF however, missionaries are sent out with the professed goal of founding (“pioneering”) their own chapters, where they operate as leaders for decades. This simply cannot result in good. Passages from the Bible such as Acts 14:11-15 or 1Cor 3:4-23 show how quickly church members attribute a position much too high to missionaries and church founders. Paul repeatedly had to work towards members not making him the center, but Jesus whom he proclaimed. Paul aimed at an independent faith of the church members and didn’t believe he had to permanently control, discipline or train them. (During the 1950’s there were real American missionaries in Korea who worked with as many as 50 churches at a time to get them started. The American missionaries had no standing in any of the churches, rather they served the Korean pastors in any way they needed to establish a church. This is directly opposite of what Sarah Barry has done with the UBF.)
There is no “separation of powers” whatsoever in the authoritarian system of UBF. The lack of such separation of powers is justified in UBF by claiming that this isn’t necessary in such a wonderful, spiritual, Christian church, and that the leaders are “servants of God” and therefore categorically and always trustworthy. This claim, however, ignores the biblical truth of the corruption of the human race after the fall, the doctrine of total depravity. Even for Christian, there is still the danger and temptation of giving way to sin, and you are virtually provoking that danger if a leader is taken to a position of unchecked power. Presbyterians were substantially involved in the formulation of the American constitution, and the idea of separation of powers established in the constitution is clearly originating from reformed theology and its doctrine of total depravity of man. UBF leaders claims to have a Presbyterian background, but the complete neglect of separation of powers in church leadership shows that in realty they have a completely different background, which is Confucianism.
In the end, a hierarchical organization like UBF must always fail, because all success of the organization, every new proselyte in UBF, is ultimately credited to the system and the man at the top of the UBF, whose honor and praise is growing over all measures a man can bear, though in reality the growth of UBF has to be contributed not to him, who is doing nothing, but to the hard working people at the base of the system. Most of all, the one who actually deserves all honor is God, but God is deprived of His honor systematically by UBF. Every such organization is therefore actually building the tower of Babel. As has become clearly visible after forty years of UBF, this venture has not been blessed either. You can’t speak about success and growth any more, but only about a miserable failure and much sorrow that has been brought over people and dishonor to the name of God.
The kind of authoritarianism that has been exercised by the shepherding/discipling movement is pretty foreign to the western intellect. Therefore, the founders of this movement considered it necessary in the USA to put up their own (unbiblical) doctrine of the so-called “spiritual covering.” It says that every Christian must be a disciple or sheep of another Christian. The “shepherd” or “discipler” is then considered to be the “spiritual covering” of the “sheep” or “disciple.” This covering not only makes sure that the Christian can grow spiritually, but it also gives him orientation and provides him with authority to become a shepherd or discipler of other Christians. The sheep only need to blindly follow and obey its shepherd, who also as a covering relieves the sheep of the responsibility for its own behavior. The responsibility of a Christian then cannot be found any more in making decisions according to your conscience and understanding, bound by the word of God, but merely in following and obeying your superior shepherd.
In this way, a chain of spiritual coverings is generated which always has the leader and founder of the respective movement at its top, who has no spiritual covering any more and refers directly to God. The question of why the principle of spiritual covering by a man isn’t applicable to him isn’t answered by this teaching. For western people and Christians who really know the Gospel, the faults and inconsistencies of this teaching are quite obvious as soon as you have recognized what is actually taught here. Therefore, the teaching is usually not professed openly.
For a Korean, however, who is stamped by the Confucian/Asian way of thinking, the teaching of spiritual covering is totally acceptable. UBF was founded in Korea and the majority of members are Koreans. It wasn’t even necessary for Samuel Lee to come up with a special doctrine or to refer to the idea of the “spiritual covering,” because it was already running in their blood. As mentioned, UBF refers to their pyramid-shaped hierarchy simply as a God-given “spiritual order” which cannot be analyzed and is entirely taken for granted by its members. The Koreans in UBF are deeply marked by the Confucian philosophy, according to which they have to adapt into a given hierarchy and work there as a cog in a machine without asking questions. This applies particularly to the members from the founding period and first phase of the UBF, who are now the leaders at the top levels. Values which are considered inalienable in the western world, like democracy, separation of powers, freedom of speech and human rights, which have become more precious for the Christian Occident through bitter lessons in the history, the same values aren’t given great importance by Asians, who are stamped by Confucianism. These Western measures of value appear strange or suspicious to most Koreans, because they seem to be imposed by the West and do not correspond to their native Confucian mentality.
As a social ideology, Confucianism requires subordination of the son to his father, the younger one to the elder one, the wife to her husband and the people to the throne. It teaches a childlike religiousness, admiration of the ancestors and faithfulness towards friends. The Confucian way of thinking ingrained in Korean culture already provided a certain mental foundation for a system like UBF. The step from the Confucian feudal order to the UBF “spiritual order” in UBF is very small for a Korean. In UBF, it is more important to fit into the system and to subordinate to your shepherd or leader than to subordinate to God himself, regarding whom them term “spiritual order” may be appropriate. Although this term, particularly applied to man-made hierarchical systems, does not exist in the Bible, for the Korean members it is a completely legitimate thing that cannot be questioned. As said, UBF doesn’t need a particular teaching of its own about “spiritual covering,” because this is already contained in the Asian mindset, and UBF only needs to appeal to the Confucian values held by the Koreans. This is also the reason why the UBF model was never really successful in countries lacking this Confucian background, despite their immense efforts.
According to the spiritual covering doctrine, all deeds and sins which were committed by somebody in the name of the system, because he obeys his “superior,” are covered by the superior. The members can hand over their own responsibility at the doorstep of UBF and actually only need to obey like robots, this in a sense also being an easygoing and convenient lifestyle. Such a principle is, however, completely unbiblical and even contradicts any worldly moral or norm. In the court proceedings after World War II, for example, the accomplices of the Nazi regime couldn’t escape responsibility by saying they only obeyed their superiors or “the Führer” (i.e. “the leader”).
In UBF, every member has as a spiritual covering his shepherd, who is to be obeyed absolutely. This absolute obedience toward a human shepherd is equated with “faith” in UBF. The direction for all important matters is always given by the shepherds and leaders, not directly by God through his word or the Holy Spirit. The shepherds are always standing between God and the sheep. Only the leader standing at the top of the pyramid of sheep and shepherds doesn’t have a shepherd himself. Samuel Lee succinctly explained this in his New Year’s letter 2001 that way: “Because I do not have a shepherd, I accepted the apostle Paul as my shepherd and I made his epistles my text book, and this is how I have grown until now.” Apparently, so far nobody in UBF has been surprised at such an inconsistency. Why, of all members, was Lee the only one lacking a shepherd, allegedly grow spiritually the most? Why shouldn’t the others then also simply accept apostle Paul as shepherds and grow so excellently in spirit? And why after all should anybody accept apostle Paul as his shepherd when the Bible clearly says that Jesus himself is the best shepherd and the head of the church? The Apostle Paul wrote himself: “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. … For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. … For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” The inconsistencies and contradictions in the doctrine and ideology on which UBF is based, are actually blatant and highly visible. However, this also is the case with other ideologies having far more supporters. People tend to believe what they want to believe, and often they don’t even let themselves be confused by logical contradictions and the reality.
UBF also cultivates a sort of “culture of eternal gratitude” that surely has a background in the Asian culture, too. For a certain time, the shepherd invests very much “love,” attention, time, money etc. for his new sheep. In the beginning phase the shepherd tolerates everything about the sheep (“bearing the sheep” as it is called in UBF). But as soon as the sheep has not only become a believer , but also committed himself to co-work in UBF – and everything aims at this goal – the sheep is expected to pay back all the shepherd’s “love” with eternal loyalty and through his own dedication to being a “shepherd” in UBF. Since becoming a believer, the sheep got something that has an eternal value, so to speak eternal gratitude is attached to joining the UBF, and all the love is demanded to be repaid to UBF and the shepherd. For somebody who has become a believer in UBF, everything is justified by this belief that he has received eternal salvation through UBF and thus UBF must be “God’s work” and can never be questioned. Questioning the ministry through which you have been saved is considered the worst kind of unthankfulness. You now must remain always grateful to UBF and are not allowed to criticize anything, no matter what happens. You simply have no right any more to do this – only the responsibility of being thankful, towards both the system and its leaders. The UBF hierarchy thinking is actually deeply rooted in Korean tradition. The Korean language has six levels of politeness, and in the Korean culture it is extremely important to refer to each other with the proper form of address. Even little children in a family have to address each other with the proper term, depending of whether, e.g. the brother is addressed by his sister or his brother, and whether he is elder or not. This tradition has also been taken over to UBF without examination, where co-workers always address one another with their title “shepherd” or “missionary.” This seems to be a small thing, but it supports the hierarchical system of the UBF enormously. And it is a violation of Biblical principles. In the Bible, nobody is addressed with a honoring title except Jesus (rabbi, master, Christ, Lord). Even Paul isn’t called “Saint Paul,” “missionary Paul” or “apostle Paul.” The first name was sufficient for the apostles. Peter was appointed as a shepherd by Jesus himself and he was a much better shepherd than everybody else. Yet even he wasn’t called “shepherd Peter.” Jesus himself taught that nobody should adorn himself with a title such as “rabbi,” “teacher” or even “father,” but that all should be regarded as brothers. The hierarchy thinking is actually deeply rooted in Koreans. According to the Bible all people are equal, only God is standing over them. Particularly the forgiveness of sins through Jesus creates a situation among the believers where nobody should raise himself over the others. They all should regard in Jesus Christ only as brothers and sisters, and “discrimination of rank” between rich and poor, master and slave, Jew and Gentile, even male and female, should not be made by Christians (Mt 23:8; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11; Jam 2:1). For Koreans or Asians, however, two people are never equal in rank. Two strangers speaking with each other always try first to find out who has the higher rank, the higher age or something like that. Because of this it is impossible to reprimand your leader. Therefore leaders aren’t rebuked for grievances and they do not correct their behavior, unless they find out they are doing something wrong by themselves, which is rather improbable since people usually don’t see the faults of their own. This hierarchy thinking also works the other way around. Should it happen that the leader is admonished anyway, he will be very angry that somebody lower in rank is trying to admonish him, and won’t accept his admonition: “What? You want to teach me?” In the consequence the leader will have to prove his position of power above all things, and the poor misguided soul who dared to criticize him will have to endure the wrath of the higher rank person. After this, of course he will think twice the next time before he will confront him again. According to the Korean culture, whoever opposes the hierarchical system is considered rebellious and therefore is doing something very wrong.
In this culture, it is not only important to fit into a system, but also to maintain some prestige in the community. You must always “keep face,” and it is considered a bad “loss of face” if you are insulted or openly criticized in the presence of others. It matter not whether the criticism is justified, or whether a statement is true or not. It is only about keeping or saving face. Therefore, the Korean UBF leaders are not willing to openly acknowledge any of their faults or accept criticism either. Although they call themselves Christians, it is virtually impossible for them to repent for any misconduct, to confess publicly or to apologize. All of this would be considered a devastating loss of authority and face. In short, you can say the problem of UBF is that it is not about “having faith,” but about “having face.” By the way, in this culture, the one who makes somebody else lose his face will also lose his own face. He has behaved in a “dishonorable” way, which always means a loss of face, too. This is also the reason why relatively little criticism is published by UBF Koreans. They often keep silent about particularly the most extreme and embarrassing grievances, since the one who is talking about things like these would lose face and dignity himself in doing so.
Though Confucianism represents some good and Christian values, such as the respect for the parents and superiors, it is in many other respects completely incompatible with the Christian faith. In the end, the truth will be irrelevant and repentance will be impossible if it is only about keeping your face and honoring your position and those of your superiors. It is tragic that most Korean “missionaries” in UBF aren’t aware at all of these contradictions to the Christian faith, but on the contrary think of Confucianism as very consistent with Christianity, or even interpret Christianity as only the “cherry on the cake” that needs to be added to their Confucian philosophy of life to make it perfect. A well-known Korean theologian made the following pointed comment: “Christians in South Korea are not progressive or liberal, our Christians are Confucians dressed in Christian robes.” At least with regard to the Koreans in UBF this seems to be very true. In the bottom line, the “UBF religion” is merely Confucianism hidden behind a Christian façade, with the UBF community as the highest good. One could also say that Confucianism is the real fundament or the true foundation of the UBF, while the Bible is only a superstructure put on top of it.
A tendency of superstition and “magical thinking” in UBF may also have a cultural origin. According to this magical thinking, you are always blessed when you obey your leaders, while you may experience tragic accidents if you don’t obey. These ideas were proclaimed by Samuel Lee even in his Sunday sermons. In UBF, “magical thinking” is often equated with “faith.” A marriage arranged by UBF leaders is considered particularly blessed, and not accidentally it is also called a “marriage by faith” in UBF. This tendency for magical thinking – contrary to the western, scientific, rational, logical way of thinking – could be connected with Shamanism, which next to Confucianism also influenced Korea deeply. In the classic book by Robert Jay Lifton, “ Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism,” one of the eight typical characteristics is listed as “mystical manipulation.” It seems that the Korean UBF members are particularly susceptible for this. Even completely irrational or missing explanatory statements, contradictions and unjust actions are accepted as a matter of course in a way that is often amazing for western people.
Other problems which surely can be ascribed to the Korean origin of the UBF are a certain megalomania and the desire to dominate, a knee-jerk reaction from the feelings of fatalism and a national inferiority complex. Also the disposition for playing political power games, factionalism, divisions and Machiavellian intrigues are well known in Korea. Samuel Lee wanted to represent the reform movement as a peculiarly Korean problem, referring to these dispositions of blatant power games. This opinion may have a grain of truth. In any case, Lee himself was the best example for this, a master in playing power games. The fact that Korea is a perfect breeding ground for cults and ingenious cult leaders is made evident for example by the “Unification Church” of the Korean Sun Myung Moon, also known as the “Moonies,” which has gained worldwide influence. But this is only one of more than hundred different cults with hundreds of thousands of followers in Korea. You could even count North Korea as one huge cult worshipping the “dear leader” Kim Jong Il and the Juche ideology. It is certainly due to the Korean mentality that this stone-age communism was able to survive to this day. Even many of the more normal Christian churches in Korea tend to establish personality cults around the pastor. Members are often dependent on him and receive their life directions from him. The leaders are revered and therefore are often very powerful, very rich and contend for larger numbers of membership, since this automatically increases their honor, power and wealth. The Moonies, by the way, are similar to UBF in many a regard, particularly with regard to the mass arranged weddings which are used primarily as a means permanently tying down the recruit with the cult. Although Samuel Lee didn’t come up to the dimensions of Moon in this regard either, yet it happened that he once married ten couples in Chicago at a single blow, where just as in the case of Moon the leader determined more or less arbitrarily who had to marry whom. At the Chicago weddings Lee collected a $2,500 cash marriage fee from each couple, though he had no legal authority to marry anyone in the United States.
The cultural bias in UBF is all the more tragic since UBF actually wants to engage in “world mission.” The UBF “missionaries” are making the same mistake today as many missionaries from the Christian occident did in the past, by trying to impose their own culture on indigenous people. Every missionary should be completely clear about how far he is limited by his own respective culture, in order to be able to distinguish which values of his culture are Christian and which have little to do with Christianity, so that he can pass on the Gospel and not merely his own cultural values, which might not even be in line with the Gospel. A missionary should also have the ability to adapt to a foreign culture as far as it is conformable with genuine Christian faith. The problems in the fundamental understanding of world mission in UBF are discussed more deeply in another article.
The Confucian background is also the actual reason why a reform of UBF is virtually impossible. The critics cannot begin to point out the full extent of the transgressions of the leaders and the abuses in the organization, because of the fear that these leaders and the critics both would lose face. The fear of losing face and authority also hindered reform minded leaders to admit the faults they made themselves in their time as UBF leaders, and to deal with the past thoroughly. Instead, when the dispute became known, it always ended in a division, where even the affected parties are unable to mention the reasons for the split any more. The “Campus Mission International” (CMI), split off from UBF in the year 2001 and led by former UBF leaders, still hasn’t published any official reason for the split, nor any admission of guilt or any apology for the mistakes and the spiritual abuse in the past, nor any declaration how such mistakes will be prevented in the future.
The third disastrous ingredient making UBF a system of spiritual abuse is the fact that the whole organization was dominated by Samuel Lee, a blatant “power monger.” Lee liked to call himself the “general director” of UBF and was revered by his followers as “The servant of God” and the “spiritual father.” Even after the tragic death of this absolute ruler in the year 2002, you can still say that UBF is dominated by him. Lee’s spirit is still reigning in UBF and it will for years, unless his teachings and methods will leave the minds of the members. UBF is now in a situation similar to North Korea after the death of the dictator Kim Il Sung. After the system was established and put into operation, and after a sufficient amount people were either indoctrinated or profited from the system (or both), it unceasingly drove in the same tracks after his death just as it did before. Besides Samuel Lee, many national and local leaders of UBF have evolved into smaller scale “power mongers,” adopting his methods and partly even refined them.
“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This well-known saying of Lord Acton apparently isn’t only applicable to politics, but also to churches with authoritarian leadership. How much of the Samuel Lee power monger problem was present before UBF and how much UBF made Lee a power monger? It is hard to say. However, it is beyond dispute that he had evolved into a full-fledged power monger by the mid 1970s. And the problem that UBF cannot get rid of the spirits once called by him any more has become more than evident meanwhile. The UBF system doesn’t need him any more as a driving force, it now has a life of its own. Nevertheless it has to be said that the latent authoritarianism and Confucianism of the UBF would have never become such a problem without Lee or a similar power monger.
A “power monger” is somebody who loves only himself, strives for admiration by others, and most of all simply enjoys having and exercising power over others. Sometimes greed for money comes added to that, but not the money itself, but the ability to use the money to maintain power. For instance, selective financial support of the power monger’s followers influences them and makes them corrupt and dependent on him. Lee sent the children of his cronies to very expensive universities and medical schools. Lee bought cars and houses for his closest Korean cronies to buy their loyalty. Lee sent their and his own children to very expensive private schools and universities. Since he had no job and income outside of UBF, this eventually all had been financed with the offering money from the members, but Lee always gave the impression that he generously had spent all this from his own fortune.
Behind almost all cults and totalitarian “Christian” groups there are power mongers of the kind you normally only know in the shape of dictators from the history. It is difficult to believe that such power mongers can also make a nuisance of themselves in religious and even Christian groups. Many Christians cannot imagine that there are such power mongers in Christian churches, because normal Christians aren’t disposed like that and don’t take pleasure in exercising power over others. Instead they are more likely to be dominated by others. Therefore Christian groups are the ideal victims for power mongers. Power mongers are psychologically skilled, they are experts in manipulating people and captivating their minds. They use tricks like relentless praise or flattery (through which they nourish the ego and the pride of their victims), instilling of fear (“if you don’t obey me or leave the church, you will be condemned by God”) or creating feelings of guilt, in order to hold their victims in a psychological trap. Many people underestimate the danger of power mongers, not even wanting to admit they exist. Nevertheless the Bible gives many examples. Nearly all epistles of the New Testament are urgently warning of such people, who crept into the churches and puffed themselves up as leaders. Paul called them “super-apostles” in his second letter to the Corinthians. Please read what the Bible says about power mongers for yourself.
Fortunately, awareness of the existence and dangers of so-called “spiritual abuse” has increased in many Christian churches, and there are even some books and web sites about this issue. The phenomenon of power mongers in the church and the harm and spiritual abuse caused by them has been hardly perceived or made into an issue, particularly in America. An informative book on this has been written by Edin Løvås, a well-known Christian leader in Scandinavia. He noticed that particularly in the neopentecostal/charismatic realm many groups and churches come into being, lacking democratic structures, with people being gathered around strong, leader figures who alleged they are directly appointed by God, and often turn out as power mongers. In his book “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing – Power Mongers in the Church,” he writes: “The mindset, the conception of man and the attitude of power mongers are primarily coined by his being eager for power. He knows nothing more beautiful than dominating others. Power mongers have an irrepressible urge to mastermind the heart and thoughts of other people. Christian churches and circles are realms where they can mostly indulge in this desire without being hindered.” Hardly any Christian book speaks about this issue so clearly, since most Christian authors prefer to publish something more “edifying.” They don’t seem to notice that even the Bible isn’t edifying in the issue of power mongers. Already in the Old Testament God lamented about “shepherds who are feeding themselves” (Ez 34:10), and the New Testament as well (e.g. Mt 7:15, Acts 20:29, 2Cor 11:20, 3Jo 1:9) contains many clear and urgent warnings of the already mentioned “super-apostles” and domineering leaders, some of whom are even called by their very names. When it comes to such people, you will find in the Bible a clear, politically absolutely incorrect language (e.g. Mt 23, 2Pe 2). Most Christian book writers however are afraid of writing about that “unedifying” issue, leaving many Christians unaware of the existence and danger of power mongers in the church.
Recently it became very visible how relevant and contemporary the book of Edin Løvås and his warning of power mongers in Scandinavia (but not only there) still is, when a Pentecostal church in the Swedish village of Knutby, that had evolved into a cult under the leadership of a power monger “pastor,” got public scrutiny because of a mysterious case of murder, in which this very pastor was involved. Unbelievable criminological complications cropped up that not even Agatha Christie could have dreamed up, and the amazed public became aware what kind of controlling and cultish structures can arise in a Christian church that has separated itself from the rest of Christianity under the leadership of a power monger. The case also aroused a debate about the problem of dominating church leaders propagating a “strong apostolic leadership” and declining every kind of democracy in the church saying this wasn’t a divine principle. Unfortunately, many people (particularly young people), searching for strong leadership, guidance and clear orientation, increasingly turn towards such churches, where everything is dictated to them and the leader seems to have a special “anointing” or “authority.” Dropouts from the church of Knutby reported by the way very similar things as they are known from UBF. Particularly it was also dictated by the leadership who the members had to marry, just like in UBF.
Another example showing how far power mongers can go and how their dangers are underestimated in the Christian realm is the case of Feroze Golwalla, a case that happened at the renowned Christian Wheaton College in Chicago. Several newspapers reported how Golwalla, operating his group under the Biblical sounding name “Baruch Ha Shem” and under the guise of evangelizing unreached people in Pakistan, established an extreme personality cult around himself. Though the recruits had been intelligent young adults with Christian background and zeal for mission, Golwalla managed to make these members completely subject to him, alienated them from their parents and even made them bear the most grotesque forms of physical abuse without ever questioning Golwalla. The parents have accused Wheaton College of not having oversight, allowing a dangerous cult to operate at the Christian college, and not having taken any measures tough there had been warning voices. Wheaton College showed the same lack of sense for the cult phenomenon when they allowed UBF to hold conferences in the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton without first checking exactly what kind of group UBF is, and later ignoring numerous warnings of former members and others such as the well-known cult expert Ronald Enroth and even some Wheaton College faculty members. Someone who never experienced the virtually demonic way a power monger can manipulate and control his victims, will quite simply regard victims of power mongers as stupid, and say that it’s their own fault for following such people. They will also point out that students should be mature enough and have a free will, or they may refer to religious liberty as a reason for not taking up any actions or articulating clear warnings. Though this position is understandable, it is a very dangerous one, which winds up supporting cults in their quest of finding new victims time and again.
From a psychological view, power mongers can be diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder. The characteristics of narcissism could also clearly be found in Samuel Lee. He has made UBF a system that ultimately gave all honor to him. World mission was not his real concern, but rather the expansion of his UBF system that gave him personal power and honor and made him forget his feelings of inferiority. This was allowed to happen at all costs, ignoring the commandments of the Bible and also violating the most basic moral and ethical norms and human rights. According to the UBF ideology, the end justifies the means, and the end was merely to extend UBF. Everything else had no real meaning or value. There is no cooperation with other Christians in UBF. “Collateral damages” in the “spiritual warfare” of UBF world mission are accepted as being inevitable. UBF has caused numerous devastated families and divorces, and many abandoned their faith together with UBF due to the experienced spiritual abuse.
Samuel Lee was extremely skillful in inventing perfidious methods of “training” his followers. The outward explanation was the “training” would make the victim a better Christian, but the real motive was all about completely breaking their will. According to the Bible, a broken heart before God is necessary for a Christian, but this breaking of the heart may only be caused by God himself, through the own awareness of sinfulness, and it is always accompanied by a healing of the heart by God and comfort by the Holy Spirit. It is devastating if such breaking of the heart and soul does not take place in front of and through God, but through man, and made worse when enforced and manipulated by a power monger. But this is the very thing power mongers live for. They want to produce “spiritual cripples” who are dependent on them. In their open letter of 1976, leaders of the UBF at that time described some of the perfidious methods through which they were “trained” by Samuel Lee. According to that letter, they had to e.g. to beat one another, sit naked in icy water for hours, place red hot pepper into their eyes or even pull their own toenails out. Members were forced to beat each other or run a gauntlet with other members beating them with sticks. Other humiliating treatments were reported from the USA; like Korean men who were called to line up at the center to check each others’ underwear. Or women who were forced to weigh themselves in front of Lee in his office, with the woman stripped to her underwear. Or women who were told to come to his office so Lee could give them a flu vaccine in their buttocks, though Lee was not a doctor and the flu vaccine is administered in the arm by real doctors. Such treatments then was interpreted as demonstration of his special love and care for certain members. Lee was even proud of his inventiveness regards to inhuman “training methods.” In the 1991 UBF newsletter, Lee avow himself: “Our training programs were of more than 20 kinds. But the training program was not planned for a group of people. The training program was individually based. For example … somebody could not receive any kind of training. When training was given, he bounced it back in one way or the other. So in order to teach him that not receiving training, but bouncing it back is not good, he was given volleyball training. He had to bounce a volleyball on the floor for 3 days and nights without eating and sleeping. After that, he did not bounce back any kind of discipleship training. Later, he became a most humble servant of God and director of Kwangju UBF.” In this way, Samuel Lee has produced a phalanx of “spiritual leaders” who are spiritual cripples themselves, who have been abused and now are abusing others.
Power mongers abuse their alleged spiritual authority. The term “spiritual abuse” is used, because the spiritual injuries and damages caused by it are somewhat comparable with those of sexual or violent abuse. Countless reports of former UBF members focus mainly on this spiritual abuse committed on them for years. Through the disastrous mixture of the three elements “authoritarianism,” “cultural bias,” and “leadership by a power monger,” UBF has become a very dangerous system exerting spiritual abuse, and it is necessary to warn people urgently of this dangerous system. Unfortunately, many recognize this danger only when it is too late. In the beginning, members are showered with love (“love bombing”) and treated with kid gloves. Not until they are shackled to UBF through the aforementioned psychological bonds, and their faith in God and their salvation have been twisted together in their imagination with their co-working in UBF into an inseparable unit, and when the will of the leader has become the will of God for them and obedience towards him has become equal with obedience towards God, only then the real spiritual abuse starts.
Power mongers are not only interfering in the relationship between the believers and God, but even in marriage relationships of church members. The relationship of a member with his shepherd or the church leader is made stronger than the relationship with their own marriage partner. There are also countless examples of this in UBF. Power mongers like Samuel Lee are not only able to dictate whom you have to marry, but also order the divorce from your spouse if he or she isn’t loyal to UBF any more, and marry you off to somebody else, though divorce is clearly forbidden in the Bible. It is even claimed that Samuel Lee ordered the abortion of unborn children. The spiritual abuse in UBF is particularly large in the area of marriage.
The problem of power mongers in the church cannot be over-emphasized. False ideas of church leadership, wrong church structures, gullibility, lack of criticism, lack of proper financial reports etc. would all be harmless if there weren’t power mongers who are exploiting these very things. To make this clear, this is not to say that all chapter leaders in UBF are typical, genuine, fully-fledged power mongers like Samuel Lee has been. This will only apply to a few. But intentionally or unintentionally, most of them copy Lee’s bad attitudes and keep the system of spiritual abuse that he has established going on.
Samuel Lee was considered a “Moses of our generation” by the Koreans in UBF, and he has also compared himself with Moses, particularly whenever he sensed symptoms of “rebellion.” He then liked to refer to the story in the Bible telling how Korah and his followers rebelled against Moses and how they were swallowed by the earth, or how Miriam was punished with leprosy after she had talked against Moses. It must be noted that a church leader who is equating himself with Moses abrogates the Gospel. If anybody at all could have the title “Moses of our generation,” then this could be only Jesus. There are amazing parallels here. Moses wasn’t only leader but also savior of the people, as also Jesus is already the “savior” by his name. Under Moses the Passover lamb was sacrificed; Jesus himself was the lamb of God. The Bible says that Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth, and Jesus also says about himself that he is gentle and humble in heart. Moses fasted in the desert on mount Sinai for 40 days before he announced the ten commandments to the people. Jesus also fasted in the desert 40 days before he started preaching in public. God said to Moses – and this is repeated in the New Testament and referred to Jesus: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.” The only one who could be considered a “Moses for our generation” according to the Bible is therefore Jesus. But it must be said that the New Testament also makes a big difference between Moses and his time – the era of the law – and Jesus and his, our, time – the era of grace: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The maximum you can expect from a man who is puffing himself up as a new Moses is a new form of legalism. And this is exactly what you get in UBF.
The ingredients explained above are the three principal components of the dangerous beverage that has been brewed together in UBF. Most of the problematic teachings, practices and methods of the UBF that stand out so negatively, and the numerous reported concrete cases of spiritual abuse and transgressions of leaders in UBF are merely the bitter fruits of this mixture. Some of the problems that are visible again and again and which have been already mentioned above in parts, are listed here once again.
Of course, these problems may appear a little bit different in each of the UBF chapters, and may be differently extreme, depending on the leader who always exerts the greatest influence. However, leaders who deviate too much from the “party line” are removed by the headquarters sooner or later, (as it happened e.g. in Toledo and Moscow) or will leave the UBF by themselves someday, as it happened in about half of the UBF chapters during the last reform movement. By and large, the UBF chapter are extremely similar due to the described mechanisms, so that UBF will sometimes even resemble a franchise enterprise. But it may sometimes take quite a long time until you will be able to see through the apparently kind and pleasant façade and get confronted with the hidden “dark side” of the UBF.
- Despite the letter “U” in “UBF” standing for “university,” UBF in no way addresses the special needs of students or offers an intellectually attractive Bible study.
- Despite the letter “B” in UBF which standing for “Bible,” there is an alarming disdain and ignorance of any systematic theology. The “Bible study” in UBF is extremely superficial and can hardly called such. The basic principles of hermeneutics, historical environment and classic interpretations aren’t studied, not to mention the original languages of the Bible. It is only about internalizing more deeply the wrong or one-sided UBF interpretation of the Bible with the help of predefined “questionnaires.” The official confession that the Bible is the foremost guideline is only lip-service. In reality, biblical commandments and guidelines are regularly annulled by UBF leaders.
- Despite the letter “F” in UBF standing for “fellowship” (or “friendship” in Germany), UBF is dominated by an atmosphere that prevents the development of real fellowship or friendship. Granted, you will suddenly have many “friends” in UBF, but these friendships usually are superficial and coupled to your membership in UBF. But there hardly are genuine, reliable and deep friendships. Reasons for this are the frequent abuse of confidence in UBF, the formal salutation with titles, the time demands on the members, the schematic, hierarchical mode of co-working, the lack of spontaneity, the “testimony sharing sessions” that don’t allow real exchange of ideas and feelings and the competitiveness promoted by the leaders. There is also the belief that, as a missionary with respect to a native co-worker or a shepherd with respect to a sheep, you shouldn’t establish a friendship that is too close, because you would lose your authority by doing so. There is also a lack of tolerance of views that don’t conform to the UBF party line. The result is a lack of openness and too much timidity in conversations.
- Members and students who have been targeted as members, regularly report about the extreme intrusiveness of UBF, harassment, bullying, the frequent guilt-tripping, as well as control and coercion. Critics who have dropped out sometimes reported harassment through phone calls even after leaving UBF. Others, who seemed to be less of a threat to UBF, reported how they have been completely forgotten and ignored by UBF after leaving. All the facets of spiritual abuse, for example as it is covered in books by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, chronically takes place in UBF, often subliminally or seemingly harmless, but sometimes also in overt or extreme forms. The typical methods of manipulating members known in other cults, as they are described in the books by Steven Hassan for instance, and the correspondingly negative effects on members’ personalities can all be found in UBF, too. Instead of developing their own, individual personality, members develop a “cult personality” typical for the group.
- Marriages are arranged and controlled; they are allowed exclusively within UBF and only the leader may decide who may or must marry whom and when. This extreme paternalism is embellished in UBF with the term “marriage by faith.” This term also pushes members to put up with it because who wouldn’t like to show that they have faith? Of course what faith actually is and in who or what members put their faith in doing so is a different question.
- UBF teaches and propagates many more obviously wrong or dubious concepts which are usually referred to with positive, seemingly biblical expressions. Biblical terms and concepts are reinterpreted or newly coined in phrases like “marriage by faith.” One could actually write an article individually on each of the following concepts and the more or less strongly twisted and distorted meanings that are connected with them in UBF: shepherd, disciple, fruit, love, faith, calling, obedience, marriage, royal priesthood and holy nation, church, house church, world mission, missionary, “vision,” “Abraham of faith,” “mother of faith,” “God’s work,” “servant of God,” “absolute obedience,” “spiritual order,” “spiritual heritage,” “manger ministry,” “shepherd heart,” “raising of disciples.” The redefined and loaded language that is created in this way makes it impossible for the members to think clearly and in an unbiased way. If you are reading the Bible in UBF, words and phrases are immediately associated with the body of thought of UBF and understood in the context of the UBF interpretation.
- There is a completely wrong understanding of authority in UBF: The leaders simply have authority by the fact that they are leaders; they don’t have to earn it, and the authority extends far too much in unreasonable areas. Leaders interfere in personal life decisions and matters of conscience and faith that only the individual believer should decide; they take on the role of a mediator that belongs to the son of God Jesus Christ only, the role of counselor that only the Holy Spirit should have; they demand obedience in a way that only God, the Father, can do.
- The concept of “absolute obedience” is popular in UBF. Such an absolute and blind obedience is repeatedly demanded by leaders and shepherds, often only on the basis of their position in the church. Obedience should primarily arise from trust in a leader, and such trust must grow and cannot be coerced or demanded. Most of all, no absolute obedience may be demanded that requires acting contrary to the person’s understanding and conscience. The direction of a leader should never be presented as the unquestionable direction or will of God, that must be followed absolutely. But this is exactly what happens in UBF. Sometimes UBF leaders also say that absolute obedience is only due to God. But since the leaders and shepherds in UBF convey “the will of God” to you, in the end it always results in absolute obedience towards these people.
- Leaders in UBF believe they have to give no account for their behavior and their decisions. They won’t accept any responsibility either if their authoritarian instructions and directions should lead to problems. For instance, if the “training,” the exerted pressure to perform, the guilt-tripping or missing and wrong counseling of an emotionally unstable or mentally disordered member leads to his suicide, or if the partners in an arranged marriage should turn out completely incompatible with each other, and such a marriage becomes a hell or ends with divorce. There have already been such cases repeatedly. The higher a leader’s position is in the UBF hierarchy, the more power and responsibility he has, but the less he is held accountable. While every “sheep” has to give account why he or she does not “invite” on the campus often enough, or bring “the whole tithe,” or missed “writing testimony” or coming to the “one-to-one Bible study,” a leader only needs to give account to his next superior leader; the top leader accordingly being in a position where he does not need to give account to anybody anyone at all – a world that is completely upside down, but accepted by the members as God-given.
- In particular, usually no account is ever given for the amount and use of the collected offering money. Already at the local chapter level, insight into finances is usually not provided to the members, and the higher you get in the hierarchy of chapters, the more intransparent the cash flow gets. Nobody knows exactly how many millions of dollars have been accumulated in the headquarters, where all the cash flows come together. The topmost leader, who alone knows about these cash flows and the secret bank accounts, can have the money at his disposal and use it for the strengthening of his power or for the enrichment of himself and his most faithful followers. The children of these people are often sent to expensive prestigious universities using this money. On the other hand, needy people and members who often devote all of their time to the UBF mission or put up with bad jobs because of UBF, are practically never supported financially.
- The leader and the organization try to remain non-committal in all things, so that the question of accountability doesn’t arise at all in the first place. There are no official or binding guidelines or by-laws for church leadership, no specified doctrine or ethics, no official theological system, also no written elaboration of the principles and methods upon which UBF is operating, which are regarded as an indispensable, precious tradition and “spiritual heritage” of the late leader, and to which the current leadership wants to cling even in the future, regardless of the consequences. Nothing of this is, however, put on record officially. The crucial things are preached “between the lines” and the most important rules remain unspoken. The goal of this is that the leaders are able to decide arbitrarily in every case, without being bound to any standards or principles. On inquiries to the leadership, you will also never receive any clear, obligatory or written information. This modus operandi of not wanting to commit oneself is often even regarded as spiritual. However, everybody who holds such a view should realize that the very thing that makes the Christian God so outstanding is the fact that He is binding Himself in written covenants and in His Word towards man. He doesn’t exert arbitrary power in which He is not accountable to any man, and where everyone must merely knuckle down without questions, as in the case of the Islamic God for instance.
- From these missing principles, an extreme form of situation ethics results: Things are only important, if they are profitable for UBF. The end justifies the means. Everything that is effective is good. Outward appearance is more important than reality, heart and mind. Image is everything. The image needs to be held up at all costs, and all negative things must be covered up. In doing so, telling half-truths or twisting of the truth, and, if need be, direct lies are considered legitimate means.
- A German cult commissioner explained it in a nutshell: “The ethics of UBF can be summed up in one single word: Obedience. Or more exactly: Blind, unconditional and slavish obedience.”
- The problems of UBF have been aptly summarized also as “the total disrespect for human dignity in every sense,” which is indeed a universal hallmark of the UBF.
- A former member summarized her experience in this sentence: “There is no real love in UBF.” Of course this would be vehemently denied by the present UBF members. For sure, there is much talking about love in UBF, of having love among each other and towards the “lost sheep.” It is, however, the question, how real this love is and with which ideas the concept of “love” in UBF is loaded. The word “love” indeed doesn’t have the significance in UBF at all which it has in the Bible. Instead of “love,” on the other hand, UBF frequently uses the word “shepherd heart.” A “broken shepherd heart” permits a UBF leader to train, harass or in extreme cases even beat the members at his own discretion. They say that only the motivation is important which allegedly is love. But very obviously this is not real love as it is described in the Bible in 1Cor 13.
- Another very fundamental problem, though it is questionable whether it is the result or rather the cause of the other described problems, is the lack of interest in the truth in UBF; this is often downright frightening. Truth is meant here in the sense of theological and biblical truth, as well as factual truth with respect to concrete charges of malpractice and abuse. The UBF members don’t seem to be interested in what is true or not, instead they create their own reality, which is an illusion – a kind of “virtual reality.” It is a strange phenomenon, that cult members, who believe they have an exclusive right to the truth and make a great show of it, are usually never really interested in knowing the truth. Instead, reality and truth must coincide with the given ideology of the cult. Even if a cult member suspects that something must be wrong, he or she won’t try to reason it out. On the contrary, they avoid any reality check, questioning or challenging of the things claimed by the cult, e.g. by thought stopping techniques. The ideas to which a cult member has become fond of and accustomed to over the years are often more precious to him or her than the sometimes unpleasant or uncomfortable truth. Sadly, this behavior typical for cult members is all-too visible in UBF members, too.
- Although “faith” is often emphasized in UBF as well, and although people in UBF always talk about how God does this and that, UBF members and particularly the leaders believe in reality that they must do everything themselves. Everything is manipulated, organized, exercised, forced and trained, but in the end it is claimed that it has been “God’s work.” Of course they know in reality however very well that they have done everything themselves and are accordingly proud as well, even if this wouldn’t be officially admitted. As soon as a leader believes he has discovered a “problem” with one of his sheep (the most serious problem being regarded as lacking obedience), he intervenes in and manipulates or trains the poor sheep. In doing so, he doesn’t give God a chance to work himself, nor does he believe that God is raising his children himself, at it is written in the Bible. While they are permanently demanding the faith of their subordinates, the leaders are showing with this behavior their own strong unbelief.
- Having power over others or being admired too much by them sometimes led to cases of adultery and sexual abuse by UBF leaders – this has even been reported of Samuel Lee – however, these cases have been covered up and usually even concealed by UBF critics. Those who knew about it, have been sometimes silenced with money – money, that has of course been collected somewhere as “offering money,” since the leadership has no other income. Image is everything again.
- Although the opposite is claimed, UBF is all about people, not about God. Members are showered with too much recognition, especially the top leaders and new members, who are raised up as messengers or fellowship leaders too quickly. The danger for members and leaders of seeking human recognition and honor is substantial. Some leaders have built up real personality cults around themselves. The titles used such as “shepherd,” “missionary,” “Dr.,” “mother,” or “the servant of God” aggravate the tendency in UBF of seeking honor from men or being proud of yourself.
- Everybody must fit in the same role of a “shepherd” or “missionary.” Anybody who does not fit in this role remains unlucky and will always be a loser. Different human talents and the biblical teaching of different spiritual gifts are completely ignored.
- The members are permanently suffering from feelings of guilt, of not having worked hard enough for God. There is an eternal cycle of weekly testimonies in which you have to repent for having failed and promise to do better from now on.
- There is a strong focus on numbers. You always prays for certain numbers of participants at the Sunday service or conferences, for the number of new shepherds you want to put up, the number of disciples you want to raise, or the number for missionaries you want to send out. An individual has actually no value in UBF. You are only oriented toward success and performance as in the case of a large economic group. Current membership numbers and the amount of collected offering monies are mostly kept secret, though. The membership numbers you are praying for arise from purely wishful thinking, and the members never seem to wonder why God, even after 40 years of UBF, never fulfilled the numbers that have been mentioned in the prayers of the past, not even approximately, but instead, UBF is always putting up new and higher number goals.
- The lack of education in counseling of the leaders and “shepherds,” the pressure exerted on members, and the feelings of guilt instilled in them have already led to numerous tragedies with emotionally unstable members. Samuel Lee’s mentally cruel training methods led one Korean UBF missionary to drown herself in Lake Michigan and one young Korean if UBF to take his life by jumping off a high building. An emotionally ill man, who been a member of Chicago UBF for ten years, killed his own mother. In Heidelberg UBF alone, there were four cases of suicide. A young student who killed himself with an overdose of sleeping pills had already been appointed as a “shepherd” by the Heidelberg UBF chapter leader. As in the case of the many failed arranged marriages, UBF assumed no responsibility and the whole blame was put on these people, and the leader did not even attend the burials. This is not to say that mainly UBF is to blame for all of the suicides that took place. But by trying to force everybody into the mold of a UBF shepherd, even emotionally unstable people, who actually need professional pastoral and psychological help, great harm has been done. Of course, you will never hear about such cases in UBF; at the UBF conferences you can only hear “life testimonies” claiming the UBF “training” produced positive results.
- The problem that is probably worst from a spiritual point of view is that UBF teaches in practice the justification from works. Even if officially sometimes justification by faith is taught, it is drummed into the members anyway that they actually can only attain and maintain their justification and salvation if they diligently engage in UBF “world mission” and comply with their lifestyle.
- Even though it is claimed again and again that methods are unimportant, members are forced to align their whole life with these methods anyway: Weekly one-to-one Bible studies with your shepherd, inviting more students and doing Bible study with them, writing and sharing testimonies (“sogams”) in endless meetings. Life according to these strictly predefined patterns and the total planning and regimentation of time prevents spontaneous decisions, real spiritual growth, further education and development of personal talents and spiritual gifts, positive influence on the family and outsiders and a life according to the conscience and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
- The life according to methods and schemes and the demanded obedience towards the leaders in almost all areas leads to a strong dependency of the members. If you never have to decide on your own, you are not able and do not want to do it any more eventually. Personal responsibility, self-initiative, critical thinking and analyzing, creativity and spontaneity disappear more and more.
- In UBF you have an extreme focusing on mission, however mission and evangelizing is always seen in the context of UBF and only in the sense of extending the UBF organization. Everything that doesn’t fit into the UBF mold is ignored.
- Because of this, UBF also cuts itself off from other Christians and doesn’t cooperate with other Christian groups in the same town, not even those that have the same goal of student mission. Because of this, the impression of being something special is also growing. UBF is ruled by exclusiveness and strong elitism.
- The family is also considered a hindrance to mission and hardly any value is given to family life for its own sake; parents, spouse and children are neglected. It would be biblical to either not marry at all for the sake of mission, or, if you decide to marry, give your family a central place in your life. The preoccupation of UBF Koreans with marriage, the “marriage problem” as it is called in UBF, is another thing in UBF that obviously has a cultural and Confucianistic background. Although they claim that mission is the most important thing in life, it would be unthinkable for them to abandon marriage, as, for example, the Apostle Paul did. As a result, incessantly marriages are arranged, but those members who want to spend time for their marriage or family are instilled with feelings of guilt. The idea that Christian life can mean family centered life (Tit 2:4-5) isn’t only ignored, but it is even claimed that a family centered life is sinful. In this way, UBF has caused unspeakable harm to families.
- The sacraments of Holy Communion or Baptism are regarded as unimportant for the mission in UBF as well. There is no official teaching or regulation of these, and they were simply completely ignored under Samuel Lee and most other leaders. Neither Lee nor Barry were allowed to baptize or give communion while they operated within the Presbyterian Church, as neither Lee nor Barry were ever ordained. This may be another explanation of the UBF disrespect of Holy Communion and Baptism. It has been reported that Lee’s successor Miss Barry organized a mass baptism for her seventieth birthday, just as Mr. Lee liked to have weddings take place on his birthday. Why suddenly, after several decades is UBF practicing baptism, or whether this was only a one-time event, isn’t explained to the members. This is still up to the capriciousness of the leader, and an official teaching about these things is still missing.
- Everybody who knows UBF a little bit more deeply, has surely also come to know the “janus-headed” character of the organization: On one side, you will see a kind face, pretending to be non-judgmental and showering the newcomers with demonstrations of friendship and love. But as soon as you are involved a little bit deeper in the organization, the other face also becomes visible: You are pressured, accused and coerced. The seeming “friendship” turns into authority. Also, you are confronted with double-dealing: Leaders may never be criticized, while the permanent criticism of members is described as “disciple education” and is the usual order of business. You actually have a two-class society. Leaders don’t have to “go fishing,” don’t need to do Bible study, share their testimonies, clean the center and often they don’t even need to earn their own living while they demand all of these things from their subordinates.
- As a UBF member, you are also subject to a permanent alternating hot and cold bath of feelings. The leaders like to work with extremes here: Somebody is praised, exalted, honored in front of everyone, he is told how important he is, held up as a messenger at a conference and everybody tells him how much they love him. Later, he is rebuked publicly, reproached for laziness, not being spiritual or thankful enough, feelings of guilt are instilled and then the love is withdrawn from him. By turns, he is complimented and then blamed again. In this way, many members permanently waver between a feeling of pride and feelings of guilt, between the feeling of being something special and a sense of shame. They inwardly are confused and become more and more dependent on the organization and its leaders.
- On the one side, feelings are regarded as something negative and standing in opposition to faith; they are suppressed in UBF, whenever instinctive feelings warn you that something could be wrong, or if you have too much empathy with the “sheep.” UBF members pretend they are only thinking rationally and are making decisions only “by faith,” not based on feelings. On the other side, however, there is the strong effort in UBF, for instance at conferences or during one-to-one sessions, of creating an emotional atmosphere, where the attendants are so excited and nervous that they cannot make a rational decision. Even if it outwardly may not look like it, and if they try to avoid this impression, UBF has to be classified as very “charismatic” in this regard. They are not seeking a level-headed and rational decision after the investigation of the own consciences and the Bible, but rather an emotional, spontaneous “decision of faith” (in absolute obedience towards the “orientation” of the leader) without a real basis or based on “magical thinking.” Such a decision is often enforced in an emotionally heated atmosphere. It is not by chance that the shepherding/discipling movement emerged in charismatic churches; and in the above sense UBF has much in common with charismatic churches. It is particularly problematic that even decisions affecting your whole life, like the commitment of becoming a UBF shepherd, going as a missionary into a foreign country determined by the leader, or marrying an unknown UBF member determined by the leader, are often required from members under pressure without giving them enough time to think it over.
- You can also observe a strong legalism in UBF. The weekly participation in the Sunday service in UBF is the highest and absolute duty and one of the reasons why as a UBF member you cannot have any vacation that lasts longer than six days. If you are missing during the Sunday service, you are immediately called or fetched. The weekly Bible studies are also an absolute duty. Overall you can say, however, that it is not so much about keeping the laws, but rather all about the principle of obedience.
- The atmosphere of UBF nurtures hypocrisy, particularly among the growing children of the UBF members, but also among the adult members. If you keep up appearances, take part in all events, fulfill all your duties and the dress regulations, everything will be all right and you will get recognition – even if your inner life may look dark. Conversely, if you feel inner peace with God and your conscience, you frequently are rebuked and accused nevertheless, because you don’t live according to the ideas of UBF. Generally, UBF seems to amplify many negative characteristics of members, such as arrogance and pride on one side and inferiority complexes on the other side, instead of improving their character and letting them grow to mature Christians.
- The mentioned double-dealing of UBF leaders can be found in nearly all areas, and also regarding the claim of being a “layman mission” and the demand of a “financially independent lifestyle.” This is demanded of every rank-and-file members, even of the missionaries in very poor and underdeveloped countries. But the leaders aren’t abiding by these very rules they have imposed on others. They usually let UBF members pay all their living expenses, and most of the top leaders have become completely dependent on UBF. They can’t do anything else besides being UBF leaders, because they have no education or professional experience in order to get a proper job. Other churches cannot use them either, because they don’t have a theological or pastoral education. Therefore, a UBF leader can never step down, since he has nowhere to go. He would not only lose his reputation and his power in UBF, but also his financial base for life. The topmost leaders would not be able to feed their families, pay their houses, and send their children to expensive universities, if they had to step down. That’s the reason why these UBF leaders cling to their positions so much and try to keep them by all means. They are against any kind of reform, already for the simple reason of being afraid they could be removed from their leadership positions as a result. Where should leaders like John Jun in Korea or Abraham Lee in Germany go? Without the UBF system which is feeding them and which is the only place where they are respected , they are not able to live. If UBF would be a real layman mission as it is claimed, such problems wouldn’t exist.
- There are also noticeable nationalistic and racial tendencies in UBF: White, blond-hair Americans or Europeans are preferred as members instead of dark-skinned or foreign students; within the UBF, Koreans are respected more. The original motto of UBF was “Bible – Korea – world mission.”
- Leaving UBF is almost always a traumatic experience.
- To this day, UBF refuses to examine or to check these things, to admit concrete faults and sins of the leaders and to question its own system. To this day, UBF hasn’t apologized to the many former members and their relatives, who have been hurt or abused by UBF, or whose life or marriage has been destroyed by UBF. Instead, the victims of the system are blamed once again as ungodly people, slanderers and rebels. After three failed reform attempts, the complete inability to be insightful and to repent is in itself a bad fruit of the UBF system that can hardly be overlooked any more.
These negative phenomena are only a part of the problems which have arisen from authoritarianism, Confucianism and leadership by a power monger, but they show that these things aren’t only problematic in theory, but bring about manifold negative consequences in practice.
Another tragedy behind UBF is the apparent lack of an alternative to UBF for many members, resulting from the pathetic spiritual condition of many mainstream churches. If they would only be a little bit more attractive, more active in mission and proclaiming the biblical Gospel, then cult-like authoritarian groups such as UBF would hardly have any chance of casting their spell over them. Many members have been invited by UBF without having heard the Gospel before or any contact with a healthy Christian church. Therefore they tend to believe that everything they see in UBF is biblical Christianity. The larger churches definitely share some guilt for so many people getting into cults, if they don’t offer them any real alternative. Many people are thirsty for the truth, they long for the living water of the Gospel, and if no one quenches this thirst, in desperation, they will drink the bitter, spoiled water of cults and make themselves slaves to the cult leaders. The appearance of cults and spiritually abusing groups should spur the healthy churches to show their colours and be more present and visible.