Peoples of China

Chinese Cults, Sects, and Heresies


The selections below of new religious movements in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) all claim a Christian heritage. The following details are a distillation of information from an internal document of the Chinese Public Security Bureau published in 2003, unless otherwise noted.[1]

1. Shouters (呼喊派 hūhǎnpài)

Other Names: Local Church or Local Assembly (地方教会 dìfāngjiàohuì); The Lord’s Recovery

Leader/Founder: Li Changshou (李常受 1905-1997)

Background: Li comes from a Baptist background with later Brethren influence and was a close companion of Watchman Nee for some time before they separated in 1949 when Li left mainland China for Taiwan., He later moved to the United States in 1962. A prolific writer, he oversaw a new translation of the New Testament, called the Recovery Version. His major work is Life-study of the Bible, a 25,000 page tome commenting on every book of the Bible. In the PRC the group is commonly referred to as the “Shouters,” and in the U.S. they are known as the Local Church.

Concerns: The “Shouters” are so called because of their practice of shouting Bible verses and “Jesus is Lord” in a mantra-like fashion. However, this may be more of a phenomenon in the PRC than elsewhere. Li’s mystical reading of Scripture led to a number of theological detours for which the Local Church is often criticized, including strict views of “one church, one city” and denunciation of Western Christendom, particularly denominationalism. His view of the Trinity comes very close to modalism, and his view of man shares much with the Eastern Orthodox view of theosis. Despite attempts in the PRC to defame them, they have made great efforts to exonerate their reputation, including court cases in the U.S. against “Christian” book publishers where they have fought hard to be removed from lists and publications of Christian “cults” with some success.[2] Some people may find some of their practices unusual, but they do not seem to be socially dangerous either in the PRC or the U.S., despite claims by the internal document that state otherwise. However, a number of more dangerous offspring have resulted, as shown below.

2. Disciples Society/Association of Disciples (门徒会)

Other Names: In Hubei, known as The Narrow Gate in the Wilderness (旷野窄门)

Leader: Ji Sanbao (季三宝, b. 1939/1940; or 季三保, 季忠杰)

Background: Founded in 1989 by Ji, a farmer from Shanxi, this movement spread to fourteen provinces in the PRC and by 1995 had an estimated following of 350,000 people, primarily in rural areas. In 1999, OMF estimated their numbers closer to 500,000. Little is known about the group apart from the official internal document of 2003.

Concerns: Ji claims to be the “Christ established by God.” As “God’s son,” he also claims the power of miracles including healing and resurrecting the dead. The group has a very strong eschatology, encouraging followers to drop out of school or abandon their farms to pray and await ascension to heaven; they predicted the world would end in 2000. They are accused of committing heinous crimes such as abducing women, rape, and fraud. In addition, they are accused of attacking the Party, instigating riots, and resisting family planning policy.

3. Full Scope Church/All Sphere Church (全范围教会)

Other Names: Born-Again Movement (重生派); Word of Life Church

Leader: Xu Yongze (徐永泽, b. 1940); English name: Peter Xu

Background: Reports on this group offer widely conflicting accounts. Christianity Today reports that it was founded in 1968 and identifies it as one of the popular, fast-growing house church movements—even identified with the Back to Jerusalem Movement. The number of followers in 1998 was estimated at 20 million.[3] The internal document of 2003 dates its beginning to 1984 and estimates thousands of followers.

Concerns: Early reports indicated the movement required repentant persons to weep for three days to be saved; however, Xu denies this and says we are saved only by Jesus’ grace.[4] Following Xu’s arrest in 1997, the PRC state media branded Xu as having similarities to David Koresh.[5] At that time two notable, conservative, Chinese house church pastors, Samuel Lamb (1924-2013) and Allen Yuan (1914-2005), as well as registered church pastors criticized Xu, although it is unclear for what “doctrinal aberrations” other than the three-day weeping claim. The internal document of 2003 identifies only minor social concerns, one of which was the loud cries that disturbed neighbors. The Three-Self Church clearly was concerned that members would be drawn away from the Three-Self fold. Social discord caused by evangelists being away from home too long was also mentioned.

4. The Spirit Sect (灵灵教; 属灵教、灵灵派)

Leader: Hua Xuehe (华雪和 1940-2000)

Background: Reportedly formed in 1983, Hua, a farmer from Jiangxi, claimed to be a “second Jesus Christ the Lord,” and his hometown of Huaiyin, in Jiangxi, to be Jerusalem. The internal document of 2003 states that his influence has spread to 13 provinces with more than 15,000 members.

Concerns: In addition to his messianic claims as leader, Hua also made eschatological claims of imminent disaster that led people to forsake daily life. Within this cult there is blessing-based fraud and healing/exorcisms with aberrant practices that include whipping and withholding medicine.

5. New Testament Church (新约教会)

Other Names: Christian Charismatic Evangelistic Band, (基督灵恩布道团)

Leader: Jiang Duanyi (江端仪 1923-1966)

Background: Jiang, a movie actress, founded this group in 1963[6] and died of cancer not long after establishing a second branch in Taiwan in 1965. Hong Sanqi (洪三期) was appointed the leader of the Taiwan region that covered more than 30 established churches. Jiang’s daughter, Ruth Zhang (张路德), and Hong now lead the movement.

Concerns: Jiang believed she was reestablishing the church as known in the New Testament with herself as God’s “great prophet of the East.” They seem to pose little social danger apart from the internal document of 2003 that claims they attack the authority of the state.

6. The Established King (被立王)

Leader: Wu Yangming (吴扬明 1945-1995)

Background: Wu founded this group in 1992 in Anhui along with Liu Jiaguo (see #7). It has spread to 23 provinces and regions.

Concerns: Wu believed he was God’s son and claimed he would establish a new heaven and new earth in the year 2000. He called himself the “Father King” and reportedly abducted more than 130 girls claiming they would be saved through their union with him.

7. Lord God Sect (主神教)

Leader: Liu Jiaguo (刘家国 1964-1999)

Background: One of the founding members of The Established King (see #6), Liu left the group to found his own in 1993, claiming to be “Lord God” (主神). His group grew rapidly, spreading to 23 provinces and regions, numbering in the tens of thousands. The turning point for growth seems to have come when the leader of the Established King sect died and Liu “inherited” his followers. Liu embezzled large amounts of money and is reported to have raped 19 women. He was sentenced to death in 1999.

Concerns: Liu claimed to be God, and wrote at least nine works explicating his doctrine. His influence ended with his life. However, the group continues to show some threat to society with occasional arrests appearing in the news, the most recent in 2014. 

8. Unification Church (统一教)

Other Names: Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (世界基督教统一神灵协会)

Leader: Sun Myung Moon (文鲜明)

Background: Founded in South Korea in 1954 by Sun, this cult, widely recognized among newer religious groups, is known for its bold media presence and especially for its mass marriages. Members have unofficially been called “Moonies.” The group is extremely well funded and is known for humanitarian gifts and aid to numerous causes. It is not clear how widespread the Unification Church is in the PRC but they are reported to be very active.

Concerns: Moon based his teachings on the Bible and The Divine Principle, a book cowritten with an early disciple, which has gained the status of sacred scripture. Other concerns include: communication with deceased spirits; a form of sin-payment called “indemnity”; and claims that Jesus did not achieve full perfection because he never married. Although accused of brainwashing its members, scholars of religion have absolved the Unification Church of these claims.

9. Three Grades of Servant Sect (三班仆人)

Leader: Xu Wenku (徐文库 b. 1946)

Background: Founded in the 1980s, this cult reportedly has over a million members in numerous provinces. Xu’s mother was a Christian, and he grew up with church influence, eventually taking the lead in his home church in Henan, prior to the Cultural Revolution.

Concerns: Numerous twisted interpretations of Scripture, rejection of grace in Christ, emphasizing salvation only through joining “Sanban,” and doomsday predictions characterize this group. They have been known to engage in abduction, defraud members, and even hold training courses on how to kill people. They apparently have some cooperative ties to Eastern Lightening.

10. The Children of God (天父的儿女)

Other Names: The Family of Love (爱之家); Family International (家庭国际); The Family (家庭)

Leader: David Berg (American, 1919-1994), now Karen Zerby (American, b. 1946)

Background: David founded the movement in 1968 in Huntington Beach, California, calling himself Moses David and God’s prophet among other names. The group publicly identifies itself with conservative Christianity. David’s second wife, Karen, took full leadership at his death. The Chinese Wikipedia article mentions that this cult entered China in 1980 and spread to many major cities, but little is known about the success of the group.

Concerns: This group advocates a form of “evangelism” known as “flirty fishing,” where sex is used to draw in new members. All forms of human sexuality, except male homosexuality, are acceptable, including sex with minors until it was forbidden 1986. David’s letters, called Mo Letters, as well as later writings by David and Karen are the main source of heretical doctrine and considered equal with the Bible. Child abduction has been reported, mainly of children of former members based on the group’s child custody policy.

 

[1] “Notice on Various Issues Regarding Identifying and Banning of Cultic Organizations,” reprinted in Chinese Law and Government 36:2 (March/April 2003), 26-35. Some groups have Wikipedia pages in Chinese and/or English, though there are noted inconsistencies. In 2014, Duihua Research, a web site devoted to research on the PRC’s criminal justice system and activities, following a page from a Chinese news site, posted a list of active groups in the PRC. The Duihua list seems to follow the group listings in the 2003 internal document. However, the material on the Duihua page and the Chinese news site includes unique information regarding prison sentences of group members and leaders along with brief descriptions of each group. See: http://www.duihuaresearch.org/2014/07/identifying-cult-organizations-in-china.html.

[2] See Christian Research Journal 32:6 (Special Edition, 2009). The entire issue is devoted to saying, “We were wrong.”

[3] Timothy C. Morgan, “A Tale of China’s Two Churches,” Christianity Today 42, no. 8 (July 1998): 30.

[4] Ibid., 32.

[5] David Koresh, an American, was a Christian who joined a splinter group of the Seventh-day Adventist Church which took the name Branch Davidians. Eventually he became its leader believing he was to be its final prophet. Revelations of child abuse provoked a raid by the United States government in 1993 that ended with the burning of their center where Koresh and 75 others were found dead after the fire.

[6] There are conflicting reports on the dates.

Peregrine de Vigo, MA, lived in central China for nine years and is a student of philosophy, sinology, and several other “-ologies.”

Image Credit: Ancient villages of Anhui by Jonathan, on Flickr (modified)

Peregrine de Vigo

Peregrine de Vigo (pseudonym), PhD, lived in central China for nine years and is a student of philosophy, sinology, and several other “-ologies.”  View Full Bio