Samuel Lee Was Not Overbearing

Samuel Lee was Meek (and Authoritarian). Those who read this blog know I have a very positive sentiment toward Samuel Lee, our UBF founder. I freely acknowledge that Lee was authoritarian. (This still offends some who insist that UBF people should never critique their leaders, which is perhaps an Asian ideal.) But Lee was not overbearing in his personal interaction with me, even though he was authoritarian. He spoke to me about intimate details of his own life. When he rebuked me, it was often gentle and laced with appropriate humor that had me smiling while knowing I was being reprimanded. Whenever he sensed I wanted something (which I often did not vocalize), he would do his best to comply with my wishes even when he disagreed with me. I always felt that Lee knew my heart, both the good and the bad. Because of many such memorable expressions of meekness extended toward me over the 2 decades that I knew him, I freely acknowledge that Lee was clearly an anointed man of God who loved me as my spiritual father, and who inspired many among Koreans and natives in many nations to live for Christ and for his kingdom, including myself to this very day.

Anointed by God. When I was in Malaysia, Ison, the Malaysian UBF leader, took me to listen to Stephen Tong, a 72 year old reformed pastor who has been preaching for 55 years. Tong is known as the Billy Graham of Southeast Asia and was conferred an honorary degree from Westminster, a Reformed Seminary in the U.S.. When I heard Tong speak, he immediately reminded me of Samuel Lee, in his anointing, spirit, charisma, and an undeniable and attractive passion for Christ, for Scripture, for holiness, for establishing Christian leadership, and for seminary education (which Lee was never in favor of). My first thought was “I miss a leader like Samuel Lee,” who is a rare gift from God to the church for the sake of the advancement of his kingdom. Like Lee, Tong was also quite blunt. Tong’s critique of Catholics and Charismatics was especially offensive, because he accused them of listening to a man, rather than submitting to the authority of Scripture. Even I felt Tong should have toned down his rhetoric on those few occasions. Nonetheless, I could not deny his anointing by the Spirit of God, and it brought back fond memories of the best of Samuel Lee.

Not Overbearing, but Meek. Jesus, Paul, and Peter all spoke on this important attribute of an exemplary Christian leader. Jesus said we should not lord it over others like the rulers of the Gentiles by emphatically saying, “Not so with you” (Mt 20:25-26; Mk 10:42-43). Paul said that Christian leaders “must be blameless—not overbearing” (Tit 1:7). Peter said that leaders in the church must be “eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you” (1 Pet 5:2-3). Clearly a Christian leader should be one who is meek, for they (not the overbearing) will inherit the earth (Mt 5:5).

A “not discussed” Weakness of Christian Leadership: Being Overbearing. Perhaps, the most common form of pastoral failure historically is sexual sin. Perhaps, the least addressed form of pastoral inadequacy historically is spiritual abuse and spiritual bullying, which damages and wounds the people of God in the church. Some Christian leaders do not like to hear this because in their heart and mind they truly meant well, which I do not deny. Nonetheless, they need to listen to “their sheep” and be accountable to them, as much as they expect accountability and submission from them.

Even Anointed Christian Leaders are Sinners. The list is endless. John Calvin approved the execution of Michael Sevetus for denying the trinitarian nature of God. Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield kept slaves. John Wesley, George Mueller, David Livingston, and AW Tozer were not loving husbands, though they were passionate for Christ. Many notable Christian leaders have a bad temper. Tong, though clearly anointed, offended my wife and son who were with me, by his negative caricature of Catholics and Charismatics. Lee and many UBF leaders after him are authoritarian, which is not unusual in churches throughout Asia. John Stott writes in his book Calling Christian Leaders that the lead pastor is functionally the king of his church, for his word is law and his directives cannot be questioned without consequence.

Is my account of Lee’s meekness and anointing too generous? Is my assessment of UBF authoritarianism too harsh a caricature and generalization?


  1. These are my friend’s legitimite comments to me after he read this:

    “Errm…how bout that time that he had Jamie walk home barefoot in winter at night from the Skokie police station to UIC because his attendance was low? Would that be considered overbearing? I think it might. You know as well as I do that I could go on at some length about this, but choose not to. We have a responsibility to stand up for the truth, Ben, especially in the light of the kinds of abuses that went on. Otherwise, we just get more of the same.”

    After my brief response, ackowledging spiritual abuse in UBF, he responded:

    “Then why oh why do you want to post articles which say that he was ‘not overbearing’? The problem is that if those of us who were around at the time minimize in any way the fact that UBF leadership really was overbearing, and that this led to countless problems in the lives of people, we risk having these problems all over again.”

    • I did not comment on this, but had the same thoughts. In my personal opinion, Samuel Lee was a typical power monger in the church, a “Machtmensch” or “человек власти” or “dictador sepiritual” as described and defined e.g. in the book by Edin Løvås. Unfortunately, I know only German, Russian and Spanish translations of that book, but I highly recommend it, it will open your eyes! Maybe we need to translated it to English and Korean because it should be read by all UBFers. I have also read a lot about cults and other authoritarian movements and their founders, and this was also eye-opening, because I found they were all alike and not different from Samuel Lee.

      All these power monger founder/leaders show the same traits and use the same tactics. And one of these traits is that they do not appear as overbearing to those who are close to them. They can be charming, even appear as humble and meek. That’s the reason why Jesus spoke about such people as “wolves in sheep’s clothing”. They can also behave different to different people, or to the same people at different times. A power monger can be generous to some or at one time, and cruel to others or at another time. My time in UBF was like a rollercoaster of emotions. Sometimes they praised and flattered me to the heaven, at other times they rebuked me or brought me down as if I was doomed or a child of the devil. This was a typical pattern in UBF, and I’m sure it was brought into UBF by Samuel Lee. But usually, power mongers have some close people who they treat better or at least make them feel they are treated better and they are loved by the power monger. They always need some very loyal people, who are dependent of them and would defend them and stick to them to the end. These close followers are not able to have an unbiased view of their master/mentor. As far as I understand, Ben, you have been one of those people, and so it’s not amazing for me that you still have a (at least partially) positive view of Mr. Lee and can even claim he was not overbearing which honestly speaking sounds ridiculous to me.

      I still remember when during the reform movement in 2001, one of the top Chicago missionaries appeased a Korean missionary in my chapter by telling her “I know Samuel Lee much better than you do, since I was much closer to him.” In reality, the opposite was the case. Those who had some distance from Samuel Lee could clearly see how abusive and authoritarian he was, which was also clear from how he behaved during the reform movement(s), but those who were close to him were completely biased.

      A power monger is a genius in playing with the emotions of people and (ab)using them for his purposes without them being aware what’s going on. This is because we ordinary people have much lesser abilities in the area of psychology. In our minds, it’s just too difficult to imagine a person that is at the same time charming and generous to us and evil to others or abusing us.

      Another problem in assessing whether Samuel Lee was overbearing or not is that UBF has been able to remove all unwanted info and testimonies about Samuel Lee, and instead only spread and renew their own propaganda on “Founder’s Day”. That’s why I think sooner or later there must be a website that lists all this info so that people can get a more objective view of the UBF founder and see clearly how overbearing he was from the very beginnings to the end, and all delusions in that regard will stop. Like telling followers to have an abortion, or perms, or eye surgery, or strip naked, or beat one another, or any kind of cruel training that resembles torture. I don’t want to list this all here, just remind you that all these testimonies exist. So in view of all these testimonies, how can anybody with a clear mind claim that he was not overbearing?

      If people want to end authoritarianism and abuse in UBF, they have to clearly understand how that all developed, so that it cannot raise again. Samuel Lee was not only the root cause for all the activism and dynamics that made UBF a large movement and sometimes helped people to find God, but also the root cause for all the abuse and unhealthy developments that hurt people and made them turn away from UBF and/or God, made them have a wrong image of God, or made them into legalistic followers of people, not free Christians. He also was the role model for bad leadership that is now so rampant in UBF. Many clones of Samuel Lee are now chapter leaders. We have to see it both very clearly and have no delusions about that. And we need to understand some psychology and dynamics that is at work in any such systems; UBF and its founder is not something special here.

    • Sorry I have to write yet another comment on this, concerning your statement that Samuel Lee was an “anointed man of God” or a “servant of God”. I think that’s very dangerous and unhelpful talk.

      First, it opens the way for a line of argument used by my chapter leader in the 2001 reform movement. He agreed that some of what Samuel Lee did and how he behaved was questionable or “hard to understand,” but told us we needed to obey and follow him anyway – because he was the anointed servant of God. Just like the ways of God are inscrutable, so are the ways of His anointed man, so we should not question or criticize him but accept him and humbly follow him. One of the favorite slogans of the anti-reformers at that time was “Do not touch the Lord’s anointed.”

      Second, it is Old Testament talk. In the New Testament, believers are brothers, we do not need any special anointed men as mediators to come to God. Doing so establishes a hierarchy of people who are closer to God and have the say, in contrast to all the others who can only look up to such anointed men. What do you think, were the UBF chapter leaders who fed the flock of God in their chapters and voted for reform in 1976, 1984 or 2001 *not* anointed by God? Were ordinary “shepherds” in UBF *not* anointed by God? If not, why do you think such nice and brave people were less close to God than Samuel Lee? And if all of them were anointed, why then do you accentuate Samuel Lee by using such a wording?

      Third, it is exactly the same kind of talk I hear about the preachers in large Pentecostal and Neo-Charismatic churches, many of which are charlatans and only serve their stomach and ego, not God, like Benny Hinn.

      Fourth, the idea that Samuel Lee was an “anointed man of God” and at the same time ordered abortions and cruel and inhumane trainings, and did not listen to any legitimate criticism, is just stomach-churning for me, it feels like mocking God to me.

      Fifth, what does “anointed man of God” even mean? Who anointed him? He himself? The other UBFers? God Himself? This expression is so ambiguous and could be understood in so many different and dangerous ways (see my first point) that we really should not use it. Making such statements about a leader paves the way to spiritual abuse.

  2. Thanks, Chris. Are you saying Lee was not a Christian?

    I do not think that I have any serious objections to anything you have written in your 2 comments. Based on many things that I have written and commented, you know that I am against all the things you mentioned.

    I made 2 short statements that basically concur with your comments:

    “…the least addressed form of pastoral inadequacy historically is spiritual abuse and spiritual bullying, which damages and wounds the people of God in the church.”

    “Lee and many UBF leaders after him are authoritarian, which is not unusual in churches throughout Asia. John Stott writes in his book Calling Christian Leaders that the lead pastor is functionally the king of his church, for his word is law and his directives cannot be questioned without consequence.”

    You can replace “anointed” with “God-besotted man” or “spirited” or “gravitas” or “unction.” Perhaps men like the prophets, like Spurgeon, Moody, Billy Graham, etc.

    Notice that I concluded my blog with “Even Anointed Christian Leaders are Sinners.” All that you describe are sins–horrible sins–which is why I wish to continue to address them, in my feeble efforts to seek healing and reconciliation.

    Finally, I should semi-apologize for the title. My original title was “Not Overbearing, but Meek.” But that was “too boring” or “bland” or “uninteresting” of a title. So I titled it more provocatively. Sorry!

    • Was he not a Christian? That’s a similar question as asking “was he born again” or “was he saved”? Ultimately, nobody can now except God alone. We can only speculate about his real intentions and real mindset. But from how he behaved outwardly, from what he taught and practiced, and from the fact that he never repented and admitted any of his clearly visible wrongdoings, I would say clearly “no, he wasn’t”. A hallmark of a real Christian is that he or she is willing to repent and does not believe to be “higher” than other people or beyond reproach. So in my view, he was a fake Christian, somebody who (ab)used Christianity to gain power and honor. Just as many other of such “power mongers in the church”. I know it sounds harsh, but that’s how I think about him. And in that he was not different from so many other leaders of that ilk. I know you have a different opinion, and I can live with that. It’s not ours to discuss whether he *was* a Christian, but whether he *behaved* like a Christian.

  3. Frankly, Ben, I have a tough time following your train of thought in this article. Perhaps that is a reflection of the multiple-faced nature of Samuel Lee, and his impact in our lives.

    Here are some random, honest thoughts based on my interactions with Samuel Lee. He was:

    Happy. From an outside-Chicago viewpoint, SL was happy the 3 or 4 times I met him. Perhaps this is because he was good at putting on a “good face” for external people, or the events when I met him. I talked to him three times: he attended my wedding and gave us $300, I prayed/talked with him about 30 minutes before I left for Russia as a “short-term missionary”, and once he stopped by Sarah Barry’s house after breakfast when I had stayed overnight in Chicago once. All three events were rather joyful times, so maybe that is why I remember him being happy.

    Godfather-like. I don’t know why, but SL acted like the Godfather and created Godfather-like political situations around him. I got caught up in that during the 1990 house breakin event. He seemed to like being misunderstood. For example, during one conference he gave the announcement: “If you don’t write your testimony, I will kill you with my gun!” We all hoped/thought he was joking. Probably he was. But he did not do anything to dissuade the fear or confusion. Another time, I was in the choir at an international conference. SL gave the announcement that no one in the orchestra could eat breakfast, because of poor signing. The announcement was harsh. After everyone else left, he then directed us to sing once, then he told us how good we were and that he had a special banquet breakfast already prepared. These kinds of things created a lot of unnecessary fear and confusion.

    Over-zealous. If anyone wonders where the over-zealous, unhealthy focus on performance-based, mission-at-any-cost fabric of the UBF mindset comes from, it comes from Samuel Lee. For example, last year I had lunch with the family of a Korean woman missionary who left UBF in 2001 during that reform movement. She saw a letter in Korea in the 1970’s written by Samuel Lee to a young missionary-candidate couple who wanted to go to Ohio as missionaries in UBF. But a big problem arose during the candidate-training: the woman missionary candidate became pregnant. This was horror of horrors to SL. The letter sharply rebuked the couple. SL directed them to have an abortion if they still wanted to be sent by UBF as missionaries. The couple declined and left UBF (as far as my friend knows).

    This kind of attitude of sacrifice of life for mission from SL, combined with Sarah Barry’s sacrifice of marriage for mission, are at the heart of the elitist, super-apostle mindset of UBF people. Until UBF begins honest dialogue with people like Chris, Vitaly and myself, that is the legacy of Samuel Lee.

    • Brian, I think the fact that authoritarian leaders often look happy has three explanations: First, of course they try to show others that they have found enlightenment already, that they already live according to the standards they preach, that their life is without blame, so that they have reason to be happy. Second, they really enjoy power and honor, so they often *are* happy because they get all this attention and love from their followers. Third, a trait of such people is that they never have self-doubts. That’s very different from their followers, who are usually neurotic people full of self-doubts, so they are always unhappy because they cannot live according to their standards (which is the standard the master imposed on them). They are attracted by their master because he always seems to be so happy.

  4. Thanks, Brian, your description of Lee is what many experience upon meeting him. I and many others knew him to be really lovely and amiable, and yet quite “scary” at the same time. He is an enigma that I think can be quite easily explained in hindsight.

    Sarah Barry does not use her singleness to promote an elitism. But UBF has (over)emphasized testimony writing, 1:1 Bible study, “discipleship training,” “absolute” obedience, etc, as being “superior” to other Christian ministries. This has caused UBF’s obvious decline in countless ways, and has made her less and less like Christ, and more and more like Pharisees.

  5. Thanks, Chris. Have you ever met Lee in person?

    Might my original article on Lee somewhat/partially explain your position and opinion on Lee (

    • Ben, when you ask whether I met Lee in person, it still sounds like you believe that it’s impossible to assess a person you never met personally. I contest this. For example, I think I’m able to make a quite solid and fair assessment on the personality of Mr. Gaddafi, though I never met him personally and never have been in Libya. I even claim I can make a better and fairer assessment of his character than any of his relatives or the clan leaders that were close to him. Recently, video tapes showing him with his inner family were found. On these tapes, he is cuddling his daughter or nieces, he looks charming and friendly. You started your article on Lee saying that he was a loving husband, a good father. I do not doubt that. But the same could be probably said about Mr. Gaddafi. Anyway, Gaddafi was a dictator and a horrible, cruel person. Do you see my point?

      Back to Mr. Lee, I have read the open letters of the three reform movements, I have read many testimonies written by former members, I have written newsletters and lectures written by Lee himself, I have talked with many people who knew Lee personally, I know how Lee reacted to all the open letters and many other attempts to challenge him. When the Korean reformers visited him in order to talk to him, he answered he would not speak to them saying “only God can punish me if I am wrong”. All of this together paints a very clear and consistent picture of Lee. Concerning the lectures he wrote, they reveal a lot. For instance, he claimed several times very openly that when people left UBF or did not obey him, they experienced bad luck, casualties or death. A typical strategy used by power mongers and cult leaders. So he demonstrably used fear tactics to make people stay in UBF and obey him.

      Having said this, I have also met him several times in person, on conferences. I saw how he used shaming to discipline people. I saw how he rolled up one complete European conference, dismissing all sermons that had been prepared and practiced over many weeks by the messengers, and let them deliver his own messages instead. My wife also reported how Lee angrily and rudely pushed one girl away, who happened to stand next to him on a photo, and let another girl stand next to him. I was at at a conference of which I later found faked photos in the UBF newsletter – faked by direct order of Lee. Obviously truth and truthfulness meant nothing to him. I heard him proclaiming historical nonsense in his messages, like if Germans shoot more in Stalingrad instead of thinking, they would have won the war, or claiming that Stalin, not Hitler, killed the Jews and things like that. His messages were full of inaccuracies and overgeneralizations. He took pride in having two PhDs, though he was pretty illiterate. He could hardly speak English, not to mention Greek or Hebrew. Still he showed off as being the source of all theological and overall wisdom, and his lectures were the only thing you need to read besides the Bible. He did not appear as a scholar, but rather as a charlatan and impostor. He also did not appear as a servant, but as a master. I also experienced personally how he engineered an arranged marriage of one of our chapter members with somebody from the US, then when that person did not want to stay in UBF, how Lee himself ordered the divorce and arranged a re-marriage. I experienced how money collections for Lee’s birthday were made in my chapter. Obviously Lee did not refuse these personal donations.

      Last but not least the whole development of UBF is witness of his character. He shaped the UBF mindset and many leaders are like copycats of him. The UBF mindset did not develop accidentally, and these leaders do not accidentally show the same traits and problems. It happened because Lee established a top-down hierarchy and copy mechanism that transported his ideas, methods and world view very effectively down to the bottom layers of the pyramid. Evidence for this, the higher you get to the top of the pyramid, the more people are like Lee.

      In your article, you claim that Lee had good and bad sides. I do not contest this at all. But I’m very sure this could be said about every cult leader or dictator. It’s not an amazing enigma.

    • In your article, you also say: “Yet he [Lee] was still very much loved by God and used by God.” We already talked about the problems of the phrase “used by God”, I don’t want to go into that here. But I’m already stubling over your claim that “he was loved by God”. I perceive such statements as typical UBF language, in which the speaker claims for sure to know what God thinks and feels. How can you know that God loved Samuel Lee other than deducing it from the fact that God loves every human being? But why then do you emphasize that God loved Samuel Lee as if he was somebody special?

      Nobody can know God’s real thoughts and feelings about Samuel Lee. Only He could look into his very heart, only He knows all facts, e.g. Lee’s problematic childhood etc. But if I had to guess from what’s known and visible to me, most likely in my view is that God really loved Samuel Lee, but hated his conduct, and wished so much that he repented. It seems like God gave him several good occasions to repent and change his ways, but was sad to see that Lee never did so.

  6. Thanks for your detailed comments, Chris. I agree with you about your personal observations and based on what you read. I observed them myself, read similar, if not the same material written about him, and also know of his “unreasonable” response to any opposition to his authority or directives. Like you, I am fervently speaking out against such horrible practices, primarily because they are continuing to varying degrees by some current UBF leaders through out the world.

    Regarding his heart and inner motives, as you said, only God knows the truth about his inner life. I wrote in my original article: “Interestingly — and perhaps not surprisingly — Lee was virtually deified by those who loved him and demonized by those who did not.”

    You say he is the devil himself, others say he is a flawed saint (while the majority of UBF people would not even comment, because in their culture, as you know, it is an “absolute” that you do not critique your leader or your founder). Of course, my personal opinion is the latter, that he is flawed Christian leader.

    Your saint Martin Luther coined my favorite Latin phrase “simul justus et peccator.” So, Lee is just and righteous because of Christ (which only God knows), and yet he is a real sinner who has sinned in real ways as you and others have detailed so elaborately.

    Whether or not Lee repented, again only God knows. As a sinner, I know I personally want to repent all things before God at all times. But some things I can only repent before God alone. These “some things” is subject to all kinds of infinite variables, such as our experiences, our upbringing, our personality, our family dysfunction (which you alluded to regarding Lee being motherless), our culture, etc.

    Thanks again for sharing Chris. I personally find this very useful. In time, I believe our UBF community will begin to address the real and painful issues you and others raised, if not by this generation of UBF leaders, perhaps in the next, if God allows UBF to continue.

    • Actually I do not want to demonize Lee and am not saying that he is the devil himself. This would again give him too much importance. He was a human being like we all, and he certainly had good sides. And he was not so different from many other power mongers, cult leaders and “Christian” leaders of his ilk. He was nothing special in that regard. I do not think “power mongers in the church” are particularly evil. Just due to their power and influence and ability to manipulate people, they are more dangerous to the church and church members. Calling such people devils or “anti-Christ” (as Luther did with the pope) is going too far. I would also not put all blame for the wrong developments in UBF on Lee. He certainly was a root cause, but there are always two kind of sins at work in authoritarian systems, the sin on side of the shepherds and the sin on the side of the sheep (

      Concerning the 1976 open letter, see for example.

  7. Hi Chris, if you or Brian have it, can you send me the link, or email me an English translated copy of the 1976 letter to

    • Ben, the English version has been on my blog for some time:

      And I’ve blogged about the 1976 reform in detail:

    • For what it’s worth, I think the Korean UBF shepherds and missionaries had some good suggestions for UBF back in 1976.

      Ministry directions of UBF

      UBF should be the ministry that God may use after solving the problems mentioned above. We suggest the following ministry directions based on the Bible. We want to change the regulations of UBF based on the following directions.

      Main direction: The Holy Spirit instead of one person should lead ministry.

      The agenda should be discussed and determined together.

      1. System

      (1) Identical man-made system should be changed to creative and independent system that respects the ministry of local chapters (Ephesians 2:21,22).

      (2) Each chapter is led under each chapter director’s responsibility. UBF discussion committee should be organized.

      (3) Abroad chapters are independently administrated. Offering money for missionaries’ education and training should be sent to the main accounting department (Romans 15:25,26). Missionary sends offering to his home chapter by his own will.

      2. Enforcement of committee The function of committees should be reinforced to establish budget, audit, inspect accounting, and administer personnel (Act 20:28).

      3. Separation of administration: Administration personnel will control budget, accounting and auditing. (Currently, the president of leaders has controlled accounting even though he should concentrate on the prayer and the ministry of the word.) (Act 6:3-6)

      4. Education of shepherds and missionaries: Impersonal physical training should be stopped and education should concentrate on spiritual inspiration. (1 Timothy 4:7,8)

      5. Administration of personnel: Personnel administration committee should maintain the administration of personnel. (Currently, the president of leaders decides and maintains the administration of personnel.) (Act 1:15-26)

      6. Protection of private life: The family of shepherds and laymen should not be inhibited by anybody for any reason.

    • One reason I see that UBF became so weird is because the leaders (still in office today) did actually try to implement some of these reforms, especially after Lee’s death in 2002.

      The problem is that the UBF leaders tried to “reform without changing”. In other words, they wanted to appease the R-Group people (so they would not be critical and go away) all the while keeping face and remaining loyal to UBF heritage.

      I found, in 2011, that you just cannot reconcile the two paths. The choice is either redemption (accept reality, change and grow), or remain loyal and uphold the heritage (live in a fantasy, hold fast to the past, and die).

  8. According to Mt.24 “God allows UBF to continue” and even predicts many cults and heresies to continue. But it is up to every person “to stay or not to stay” in UBF, to be in or “out of the camp”. I think that according to Jn.7:1,9:35,10:40,12:35 and Mt.23 and many other passages Jesus was not with Samuel Lee and is not with the “copycat” UBF leaders. I agree that Jesus gave and gives many “occasions for them to repent and change their ways” but they acted and act the same way the Jews acted. As as there were no chances to change anything in UBF through the open dialogues and the reform movements I consider as repentance only “going out of the camp” to Jesus (Jn.9:35).

  9. And Dr.Ben, do you think that e.g. Apologetics Index and Wikipedia and even google search “demonize” Samuel Lee and UBF? It is because they didn’t know him and them personally? Or do they “deify” him and them?