[UPDATE on 2 August: Adding references to report on response from City Harvest Church]
The seemingly controversial video excerpt of a sermon by City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee was taken "wildly out of context", a spokesperson for the pastor reportedly said on Wednesday.
The Christian Post reported a response to questions raised about Kong regarding a sermon he made at a church conference in Australia.
The spokesperson was quoted as saying
in a statement emailed via CHC's corporate communications department that "the use of 'I'm so sorry' here is not in the context of an apology, but a word of comfort".
"It is in no way an apology or an admission of guilt as has been suggested," the spokesperson said. "The message God gave (Kong) was that it is necessary for him 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."
"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," the spokesperson reportedly added. "He spoke honestly and openly about what he heard God say to him."
In the video, posted on YouTube by user anointedforworship on Sunday, Kong, who is accused of criminal breach of trust and misappropriating church building funds, claimed that God apologised to him for his struggles.
"'Father, Father, why, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me and thrown me to the dogs?'" he was recorded as saying, after relating the experience of Jesus Christ on the cross at his crucifixion and sharing that he identified with that kind of suffering.
"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,” Kong said.
Applause was heard from the congregation, and Kong continued, "I hear God saying for the first time in eight months, 'I love you, I love you, I love you’. Waves upon waves of God's love, the love of the father just saturated me… and I know everything's going to be all right. Everything is going to be all right.”
Watch the video here:
Kong seems to have delivered the sermon in question at the 2012 C3 Presence Conference, held in Sydney in April last year. This would have happened before the news that he and five other church leaders were being investigated for embezzlement broke in June last year, although it later emerged that investigations by the Commercial Affairs Division (CAD) began in 2010.
According to a blog post dated 7 August 2012 by megachurch watchdog C3 Church Watch, the same excerpt of Kong's speech was quoted ad verbatim with a link to the official video of his full sermon.
Watch it here:
Reaction to the video was overwhelmingly negative. Since the video excerpt was first uploaded on Sunday, it was thumbed down 750 times, compared to less than 30 thumbs up, and received more than 230 comments, most of them scathing.
Raising particular ire was Kong's seeming suggestion that God apologised to him for his having to endure the challenges of past months, where he shared how he was subject to intense interrogation and humiliation in the local and international press, and then fell into depression.
"I thought comparing himself to Jesus was presumptuous," commented a 24-year-old student who declined to be named. "Saying that he heard God apologising to him for his legal troubles was completely shocking to me."
"I don't think there's anywhere in the Bible that said God said sorry for crucifying His son," added another Baptist Christian, who did not want to be named. "His (Kong's) doctrine is all wrong."
Some City Harvest churchgoers think Kong's sharing might have been misinterpreted or taken out of context, however.
A 23-year-old worshipper, who attended the church in her younger days and only recently returned, told Yahoo! Singapore the sermon was about how God empathises with Kong's plight and is reassuring him.
"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," she said. "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."
Tuition teacher Kellyn Low, who also attends the church, added that she hopes secular people don't get the wrong idea from the video, even though she acknowledged there was cause for misunderstanding, noting that he could have expressed himself 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," she said.
Separately, Chew Eng Han, one of the six church leaders currently on trial, announced his exit from the church last month. Chew was a board member and fund manager for the church, who played the leading role in its $100 million investment into Suntec Singapore. He also channelled millions of dollars in church funds into Xtron Productions, the firm that backed Kong's wife Sun Ho's music career.
In a series of posts on a blog, Chew, who also withdrew all affiliations his company Business Breakthrough Group Limited had with the church, alluded to disagreements he had with the top brass of its ranks by referring to issues relating to the "manner of conduct of some of (City Harvest's) pastors and senior leaders".
Responding to Chew's exit and accusations, however, the church's management board said in a statement two days later that following "appropriate reviews" since the Commercial Affairs Division's investigation, they had "satisfied" themselves that the church's leadership is upright and honest.
"We wish to reiterate that... we have full trust in the integrity, honesty and spiritual standing of the pastoral leadership of City Harvest Church," wrote Lee Kiam Hiong, secretary of the church's management board.
Yahoo! Singapore continues to await City Harvest's response to the reaction to Kong's video.
Additional reporting by Melissa Law and Elizabeth Soh