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Kong Hee, the founding pastor of City Harvest Church in Singapore, who is accused of mishandling church funds, is at the center of more controversy this week after a statement he made at a conference was interpreted by some as an apology from God.
The charismatic Christian pastor told attendees at the event that he heard God tell him "I'm sorry" for the difficulties he has been facing, according to a news report highlighting this portion of his sermon. However, a representative for Pastor Kong told The Christian Post that the minister's remarks have been taken wildly out of context.
"As anyone with a basic education in the English language ought to be able to tell that the use of 'I'm so sorry' here is not in the context of an apology, but a word of comfort, for example, 'I'm so sorry about your mother's suffering,' or 'I'm so sorry you need to go through chemotherapy,'' said Pastor Kong's spokesperson, whose statement was emailed to CP via City Harvest Church's Corporate Communications Department.
"It is in no way an apology or admission of guilt as has been suggested," the person added, which was the interpretation of many readers of a Yahoo! News Singapore report on Pastor Kong's remarks, as well as of viewers of the video excerpt of his sermon.
"The message God gave Pastor Kong was that it is necessary for Pastor to journey through this painful experience because it is a refiner's fire, meant to prepare him for the work God has in store for him and the church for the future," the spokesperson added. The statement suggested visiting City Harvest's Crossover website to learn more about the megachurch's mission.
The remarks of concern, published on YouTube July 26 by a user named "anointedforworship," has drawn overwhelming negative responses.
In the video, which features Kong preaching to a large crowd during the C3 Presence Conference, held in Sydney in April last year and hosted by C3 Church Pastor Phil Pringle, the megachurch pastor tells of how he identified with the Gospel accounts of Jesus Christ's crucifixion, in how he seemed to struggle with it at one point (Luke 22:39-46) and during the actual crucifixion quoted Psalm 22:1 ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?").
"For the first time in eight months, God, I heard Him cry and He said, 'My son, Kong, thank you. Thank you for going through this. I need you to go through this alone so that you and City Harvest Church can be the man and the ministry I call it to be. I'm so sorry, but you need to go through this by yourself to bring a change to your generation,'" Pastor Kong tells a packed room of listeners in the video.
"I hear God saying for the first time in eight months, 'I love you. I love you. I love you," Kong continues in the clip. "Waves upon waves of God's love, the love of the Father, just saturated me. All I could say was 'abba... daddy... abba!' And I knew everything is going to be all right."
The three-minute-plus excerpt of Pastor Kong's sermon can be viewed on YouTube, or below:
A longer version of what appears to be Kong's full remarks at the 2012 Presence Conference, dated April 11, 2012, was previously published on YouTube by a user named "c3churchwatch." A blog critical of the ministry of C3 Church Sydney's Pastor Pringle carries the name and has several posts critical of Kong, one of which was cited by the Yahoo! News report.
As explained by Pastor Kong's spokesperson, the sermon was delivered amid investigations of alleged financial fraud among members of City Harvest Church's board by Singapore's Commissioner of Charities and the Commercial Affairs Division.
"Pastor had spent a good part of the sermon before this explaining how, when the investigations into City Harvest Church began in 2010, he slipped into depression and felt God had abandoned him. After all, he had, to the best of his knowledge, done everything for the church in the last 23 years (at the point of the sermon, 24 now) in complete obedience to God and the Lord's leading," according to the spokesperson.
"At this particular point in the sermon, Pastor Kong was sharing an encounter he had with God — his first encounter in a very long time after the May 2010 investigations happened. He had this encounter while he was preaching in a church in Indonesia, and telling the people about Jesus' crucifixion on the Cross. As he spoke he heard God say those words (which you hear in the video).
"Pastor Kong has never taken any of his sermons lightly, least of all this one where he opens up to share his most vulnerable moment with the congregation. He spoke honestly and openly about what he heard God say to him."
Watch a more complete recording of Pastor Kong's 2012 sermon:
"If he thinks he is equivalent to Jesus Christ then please curcify him by nailing him on the cross like Jesus did," wrote one commenter critical of Kong's sermon. "Can you believe that God had talked to him and apologized to him for going through the CPIB investigation? This guy is mad and should be put away in the mental hospital for treatment before he does some thing dangerous to the people. Just for the record I myself is a christian — a God-fearing Catholic!"
Another reader of the Yahoo! News report wrote: "Wow, he is bigger than God, so much so God has to apologize to him (Kong Hee) for his (Kong Hee's) own misdeeds and criminal acts!!! Has he stopped to think that maybe God is crucifying him and teaching him and his merry band of thieves a lesson because they have done dastardly and illegal acts?"
Amid the critical comments, some City Harvest Church worshippers defended their pastor, interpreting his remarks as expressing comfort from God.
"From a spiritual point of view, and from my own relationship with God, the God that I know and have a relationship with is assuring Kong that He knows the struggles that Kong is going through," a 23-year-old female member who did not want to be named told Yahoo! News. "God is coming from a position of love and assurance. He puts us through fire to purify and to strengthen us, so that we will come forth as gold."
Another female church member, identified as Kellyn Low, agreed that Pastor Kong did not actually mean that God had apologized to him, but felt the City Harvest Church leader could have elaborated his point better.
"I don't think that people should interpret it as God saying sorry to Pastor Kong. He just means that he has to go through tests like Jesus did to share his faith with the world," Low told Yahoo! News.
Commenters have also suggested in their interpretation of Kong's 2012 sermon remarks that the Christian minister was culpable of the corruption allegations made against him and former City Harvest Church board members. Pastor Kong and several co-defendants are currently on trial for allegedly siphoning SGD$24 million ($18.9 million) from a church building fund to support the pop music career of Pastor Kong's wife, Sun Ho, who has been cleared of any wrongdoing in the case. There was also a second allegation of board members using an additional SGD$26 million ($20.5 million) to help cover up the initial alleged embezzlement.
When asked for a response to insinuations of guilt, Kong's representative gave the following response:
"While we cannot deny that Pastor Kong has his fair share of detractors as do many of his peers in Christian ministry, Pastor has done more than enough to maintain his integrity before the church, and to explain issues that do not amount to subjudice. However, what he can say is very limited as the case is currently before the Court. As the congregation has been encouraged and advised by its Advisory Pastor, Dr. Phil Pringle from C3 Church, Sydney, and its Advisory Chairman, Dr. A.R. Bernard of Christian Cultural Centre in New York, it will let the legal procedure run its due course, rejoicing in hope, being patient in tribulation and steadfast in prayer (Romans 12:12)."
Meanwhile, a longtime church member and co-defendant, Chew Eng Han, recently withdrew membership from City Harvest Church, citing "spiritual and moral issues." He alleged dishonest behavior among the leadership, which the megachurch has denied.
Although it was unclear if City Harvest has lost members due to Kong's arrest in 2012 and the subsequent exposure of details of the criminal investigation, the Singaporean megachurch's recent progress report puts the congregation size (different from average service attendance) as decreasing from 20,619 two years ago to 19,819 in 2012.
"Please pray for Pastor Kong and City Harvest Church during this very trying period of their spiritual journey. Pray that the God's heavenly purpose will be done through it all," the spokesperson added in the email to CP.
City Harvest Church was founded by Pastor Kong, 48, and Sun Ho in 1989 as a non-denominational Protestant ministry that is "Pentecostal and Evangelical in both doctrine and practice." It has been cited as one of Singapore's fastest-growing megachurches.