In early 2013, China’s official media first labeled “Eastern Lightning,” more recently known as “The Church of Almighty God,” as a cult. Thus, the group entered the public arena and began to gain public awareness. However, due to the difficulties and risks involved in doing a field study of such a secretive organization, researchers have found it problematical to study. Following are the findings of a research study on this cult that we conducted over several years that concluded in 2012.
The suppression of local churches by the government in the 1980s led to the rise of new religious sects, among which was Eastern Lightning. Following the government’s suppression of unregistered churches as well as new religious groups, these churches and some of the new religious organizations split into additional sects. To avoid government suppression, these groups became secretive. These factors contributed to Eastern Lightning’s ability to attract and absorb some of the new religious groups.
In the early l990s, China’s economic transformation resulted in a great migration into the cities resulting in the spread of Christianity to city dwellers. The increasing number of Christians in urban areas became the major source of growth for the total number of Christians. About the same time, Eastern Lightning, in rural Henan, began its expansion into China’s cities. Its main tactic was not to convert individuals as new members; rather, it aimed at absorbing an entire group into its organization. It continues to achieve this by targeting the leader of an unregistered Christian church. Using persuasion, violence and other means, it gets the leader to become a member and then absorbs the entire group. In field interviews, some willing adherents were found; however, due to the cult’s extreme secrecy, even the gatherings of its members are sealed in secrecy. This contributes to its estimated number of followers varying from millions to over ten million.
Eastern Lightning’s Faith Texts
The faith texts of Eastern Lightning primarily come from the sayings of the “Female Christ.” However, it is evident that a great deal of official propaganda language is included in her discourses. An example of this is the use of the phrase, “into the new era.” Following are examples of language usage taken from doctrinal text found in The Scroll That the Lamb Opened.
You should learn to be more practical. There is no need to use high sounding speech that never formulates ways to work things out. Who actually has done something? You say you know God’s word, but that does not reflect your true stature. At most, that says you were born smart and talented. But it is empty talk when you cannot map out a path; you are useless—rubbish! Without action there is no truth.
What value is there to rant on for praise and favor from others? We need to speak relevantly and artfully. We must act justly, work sensibly, and speak realistically in whatever we do, always thinking of how to benefit God’s church. Do not repay good with evil. Don’t forget gratitude that is due others. Don’t act superior—God does not want that.
Besides using both official governmental and Christian phraseology, a crude colloquial style is used in the texts to make them more acceptable to believers in farming villages. There are also some special terms used within the organization. “Big Red Dragon” represents the regime of the anti-Christ in Christianity. “Inside story” and “pave the way” along with other terms are used when insidiously infiltrating an unofficial church. Their texts and music reflect the relatively low cultural level of the members. A number of tunes for their songs are from international songs and other popular music.
Secrecy and the Folk Religion Element
In our interviews, many Christians mentioned their contact with Eastern Lightning, yet few knew its concrete organizational structure.
The secrecy of the organization makes it hard for anyone to get into it. Usually, someone of the opposite sex tells you about a place for spiritual learning that is better than your present church. I went because it sounded good, and the people were very familiar with Christian terminology. Later on, they showed paper cuts, almost like witchcraft, that demonstrated some symbols, such as sickles, to prove their teachings. M, Jan. 9, 2007
My father and aunt attend but I don’t know when they have meetings. They won’t tell and aren’t allowed to tell. Even the family doesn’t know. LL, Dec. 3, 2010
While conducting our field study in Hai City,* almost every leader of the unofficial church talked about Eastern Lightning. They believe the unofficial church in Hai City should do a more in-depth understanding (three months of observation) of every new visitor before allowing them to join the Sunday worship. One reason is that since early 2000, Eastern Lightning has mass-kidnapped the leaders of unofficial churches and thus established a precedent.
In Shan City, one church leader recalled the conflict between her church and Eastern Lightning.
Upon our return, we engaged in a face-to-face battle with the Eastern Lightning cult. Initially, I had a slight suspicion and began observing some individuals who were preoccupied and inattentive during sermons. They introduced an Eastern Lightning believer to us. When this lady attacked our church, I was the first to recognize her deceit, but a number of people had reservations, including my husband. He said to me, “You just don’t know, peasants are like that.” I responded: “Didn’t you notice that every word she said flatters you? When in the afternoon we went to serve in the village, I felt that she consistently tried to please you every time you spoke.”
I discovered this woman’s deceit in small things—cults can easily be recognized by their untruthfulness. One day, I was by myself and she took me out to eat, but she did not pay the bill. From that you can see she had ulterior motives.
Eastern Lightning people will target the weaknesses of each coworker. If you are straightforward, they will provoke you to anger. If you are soft and caring, they will use something else. Even an older sister in the Lord was deceived. I confronted her and said, “What you are doing is evil.” She wept in front of me and was utterly repentant. However, several days later, someone told me she had converted someone who then deceived yet another. Eventually, I realized this was not just a simple problem—this was the spirit of anti-Christ.
Eastern Lightning’s tactics are very nasty, involving intimidation, and its encroachment affected my coworkers. I witnessed one sister being seduced by a male claiming that he was a seminary graduate from England. He said he would take her to different parts of the world to serve the Lord. Not many days later, she came in tears saying that he had also had relationships with other sisters.
This has a great deal to do with Chinese education. People lack basic discernment. Later, we realized that money and sex, as well as intimidation, are used to get people to join such an organization. We found that people did not dare leave because they were intimidated by threats that once they left, they would be killed by a car. If you do not have a solid knowledge of God, it is impossible to leave.
Sometimes in our battle with Eastern Lightning people, some of our coworkers wanted to give up. However, I felt that certain things needed to be clarified because this was, and is, spiritual warfare. What is this claim that Jesus came as a woman? Yet people believed this, and they were not foolish in their reasoning; rather, they were just too self-centered. Most of those deceived by the cult were deceived by their own lusts. With one woman, I explained word by word who Christ was and that he had not returned. She had to repeat back to me what I said, and then we prayed together.
This is a long, fierce, battle—and has involved even my own relatives. I could notice that something was inside one of them, similar to a drug addict. Sometimes, he would say there is no meaning in life, and he would rather be killed. At times, I felt sorry for him; however, I could sense this was a spirit influencing him. I tried reading the Bible to him, but he refused to listen claiming that his life had been tough. In fact, he hates God.
Nevertheless, the fruit after a battle is so rewarding. I lost my best friend because I talked to her aunt, and my friend felt I was too harsh with her. It was only after her aunt deceived a number of people that my friend wrote me a letter. So, I am very careful. Sometimes I see someone acting a little odd, and I think, “Could that person be…?” T, Nov. 4, 2009
Open or Closed?
The unofficial churches in various places respond differently to the impact of Eastern Lightning on the church. The experience of the unofficial churches in Shan City, coupled with other factors, led them to adopt a “closed” policy. Some churches think this will help Christian churches dodge government suppression as well as prevent an invasion (termed “stealing the sheep”) by Eastern Lightning.
When asked if the church should be open to others, one leader of an unofficial church in Hai City commented as follows.
It is understandable that a ruling party would not like any united force among its people. The church happens to be such a force. Furthermore, the church is not submissive; therefore, naturally it wants to supervise it. This is also its responsibility. If there is good supervision, then it is good. I do not want to see total alienation between the church and the government because this is not good for the church. Unlike during the fifties and sixties, things are now lax in both Hai city and North City. When things get lax, I would expect bad things to happen; that is, cults and large-scaled cult activities would emerge. An environment that is seemingly tense, and yet occasionally lax, puts pressure on the cults.
Discernment by the church members is the most important defense against a cult as is submission to church authority. When in danger, one will not take any risk if one has submitted to the protection of one’s elders. Membership also can help us confirm one’s commitment and submission to the church. It is very beneficial. JuMin, Sept. 2, 2009
* Names of all cities have been changed for security reasons.
Li Jin is a graduate student at Calvin Theological Seminary. Ma Li holds a doctorate in sociology from Cornell University and is currently a research fellow at the Henry Institute of Calvin College. They have been observing and researching house churches in mainland China for several years. This article is an abridged translation of their research report posted at www.21ccom.net on June 3, 2014. The original report, “关于 ‘全能神’ 组织的田野调查” (“A Field Study of Almighty God”), Li Jin and Ma Li, was published in the Mission Society Observation Report III, 2013, Li Xie, ed.; posted in 2014 on the Guan Lan Academic Society, web site at http://guanlan.blogspot.com/2013/12/blog-post.html . More recently, they have published “Remaking the Civic Space: the Rise of Unregistered Protestantism and Civic Engagement in Urban China” in Christianity in Chinese Public Life: Religion, Society, and the Rule of Law, Joel Carpenter and Kevin den Dulk, eds., Palgrave and MacMillian, 2014.
Translation by Ping Ng
Mary Li Ma (MA Li) holds a PhD in sociology from Cornell University. Currently a research fellow at the Henry Institute of Christianity and Public Life at Calvin College, she and her husband Li Jin have coauthored articles, book chapters, and are the authors of Surviving the State, Remaking the Church:... View Full Bio
LI Jin is a PhD student at Calvin Theological Seminary. Prior to seminary he was a PhD candidate in economic history at a Shanghai university. He writes on Christian thought for both public and Christian media outlets in mainland China and Hong Kong. He is a columnist on social and economic issues for China’s largest financial... View Full Bio