Last fall the popular news magazine Phoenix Weekly carried this article on the relationship between Christianity and cults in China. Of the most active cults identified by the Chinese government, more than half have their origins in the Chinese church. Dismissing the facile conclusion that China’s house churches are a breeding ground for cults, the article instead takes a sophisticated look at a variety of factors, including China’s own folk traditions and the impact of the reform and opening policy upon the Chinese peasantry. Particularly interesting is the acknowledgment that the removal of denominations in the 1950s contributed to the church’s vulnerability to cults and heresies. Rather than being the source of cults, the article contends, the house churches have become the victim. As the government is currently taking a tougher stance toward cults, the article’s suggestion that the government be more flexible in dealing with house churches in order to root out cults is especially timely.
Understanding Why Cults Fly Under the Banner of Christianity
In recent years, the Chinese church has continued to send out warnings to be on guard against heretical cults. Since 2000, “Tianfeng”, the magazine of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement National Committee and the China Christian Council has published more than 40 articles related to this topic. Of these articles, more than 10 are related to Eastern Lightning (Almighty God). It could be said that this heretical cult has aroused the most attention of the Two Councils*. This is because Eastern Lightning has been the most destructive to the Chinese church.
An important question triggered by Eastern Lightning is: why the surge of cults from Christianity in recent years?
In July of 2009, the author found 14 officially named cults posted on the Chinese government's website. These include the Shouters (呼喊派), the Disciple Society (门徒会), the Lingling Sect (灵灵教), All Sphere Church (全范围教会), Lord God Sect (主神教), New Testament Church (新约教会), Guanyin Method (观音法门), Anointed King (被立王), the Unification Church (统一教), Three Grades of Servants (三班仆人派), True Buddha School (灵仙真佛宗), Children of the Heavenly Father (天父的儿女), Dami Mission (达米宣教会), and World Elijah Gospel Mission Society (世界以利亚福音宣教会). Of the 14 cults named, 12 of them fly under the banner of Christianity. Three of the groups (the Unification Church, the Dami Mission Society, and the World Elijah Gospel Mission Society) are from South Korea. The New Testament Church has its roots in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The remaining eight cults are all homegrown Mainland Chinese cults. It is true that the Shouters arrived by way of Witness Lee (李常受) from America; however, Lee himself was sent out of the country by Watchman Nee (聚会处), leader of the Little Flock churches on the eve of the Communist Liberation. Therefore, at its root the Shouters are a homegrown group.
So it is understandable why people raise the question, why do these cults fly under the banner of Christianity? And, why do the majority of cults that label themselves Christian come from Mainland China? Does it have something to do with the popularization of Christianity or with folk Christianity?
Another noteworthy phenomenon is that, among the eight homegrown cults, aside from the Shouters, there are two additional cults that derive from the Shouters: the Lord God Sect and the Anointed King. In addition, the All Sphere Church (also known as the Criers (哭派) or Born Again Criers (哭重生派)), the Disciple Society, and Three Grades of Servants all certainly have a connection with the Shouters. If this is true, six of the eight homegrown cults belong to or are associated with the Shouters, which accounts for more than half of those cults. Moreover, there are several cults that were not included among the 14 cults but are viewed as heretical sects. The Changshou Sect (常受教), the Mainland China Administrative Deacon Station (中华大陆行政执事站), and Eastern Lightning were all originally were born out of the Shouters.
Because the Shouter's origins lie in the Little Flock church (聚会处), some have suggested that there is some kind of intrinsic link between the cults produced by Christianity and Little Flock. Also, because most of these cults that fly under the Christian banner proclaim that the end of the world is coming soon (a pre-millennialist theology), some see this as a major feature of cults. Thus it is worth exploring the relationship between cults of Christianity and pre-millennialism.
Why Fly Under the Banner of Christianity?
Why are there so many cults that fly under the banner of Christianity? In recent years, those inside and outside of the church have been considering this question.
Some scholars believe it is because Christians in the countryside have a low level of education. "There are not many people who can recognize enough characters to read the Bible. Lack of spiritual knowledge and uninformed faith easily leads them astray. The countryside lacks doctors and medicine. Many people believe in God because they searched for another god to no avail and so converted to another religion. Their faith only rises to the level of a rudimentary quest for happiness and security. In the depths of their spirit, there is not a real understanding of God. So if there is any excuse for superstitious thinking, it will seduce them into following it. Vast expanses of grassroots churches lack spiritual preachers. This gives false prophets an opportunity to lure believers into heresy."
Another scholar in Hong Kong compared the church situation between Hong Kong and the Mainland. He believes that there are fewer cults in Hong Kong because Hong Kong has protected traditional church denominations. This means that the church has the ability to resist heretical cults.
The situation for mainland churches, however, is quite different. After the Communist Liberation, mainland Christianity broke all ties with overseas churches and also "cut off contact between the church and the orthodox doctrine of the Christian tradition." Once the church lacked the doctrinal and traditional mechanisms for self-examination to guard against splits and deviations, "it prompted a loss in the protective equipment against heresy, particularly against syncretism between Christianity and traditional folk religions. This syncretism is the basic form of practically every heretical Christian cult that has appeared in China and has ties to Christianity. This also explains why a large number of Christian heretical cults have appeared in China."
Scholars from Henan province are studying the question of why Henan province is becoming a center for Christianity and cults. In addition to the views cited by the two individuals above, these scholars also note how some house churches are "anxious for quick results." Some people are sent out to evangelize without first having a solid grounding in theology. They themselves only half understand the faith and they can very easily go astray. Furthermore, the faith of many ordinary believers is built on a foundation of miraculous experiences; this means they are easily misled by heresy. In addition, government suppression of house churches forces members to hide, much like "secret societies." Their lack of space for communication and interaction means that they can easily become breeding grounds for heresies.
Another important effect on Christianity is the folk religion idea of "The Birth of the King of Light Closes the Eschatological Circle" (明王出世、末劫收圆). This idea blends together with the Messiah concept in Christian pre-millennialism, which claims that "Christ has already been born on earth and has established a thousand-year kingdom, and the world must go through cataclysms. One must convert to avoid ruin" and so on.
There are many scholars who analyze Chinese social transformation issues from such aspects as sociology, looking for reasons why there are so many heretical cults in China. They believe that after the Reform and Opening Up, various problems such as injustices and poverty among the lower social classes, coupled with fierce competition, environmental pollution, food safety, and corruption have caused people to lose hope. Because of this, people are particularly vulnerable to absorbing the Armageddon propaganda espoused by heretical cults.
I believe that the aforementioned investigation has a great deal of merit. One additional point needs to be made. Since Martin Luther and the Reformation, Christianity has promoted the idea that "everyone is a priest." Although at the time this idea was a refutation of Roman Catholic sacred rule and played an important role in the liberation of human nature, it also laid a foundation for a great number of Protestant sectarian phenomena. Since everyone has a right to interpret the Bible, some people flaunt their own interpretation of the Bible as the only correct interpretation. When a person can win over a number of faithful with his (or her) preaching, and claim to be Christ returned and demand to be worshipped, it becomes a heresy. This also explains why more heretical cults emerge from Protestantism than from Catholicism.
Cults Borrow Pre-millennialism to Confuse Congregants
Is there a relationship between Christian cults and pre-millennialism's (including dispensationalism) proclamation of the end times?
The vast majority of cults that fly under the banner of Christianity proclaim the impending end of the world or that it has already arrived. In addition, the cult leaders claim to be “the returned” Christ, and only those who believe in him (or her) can be saved. Those who do not believe are choosing death. Because of this, some see eschatology as the major feature of cults. I believe that, on some level, this theory holds water; however, we need to be clear about what Christian eschatology is.
Christianity has been deeply influenced by Jewish apocalyptic literature. Particularly in the early church, there was a firm belief that the end of the world was rapidly approaching and that Christ would come again to establish the new heavens and new earth.
Throughout the course of history, Christianity has produced three views concerning eschatology. One view is pre-millennialism. This view teaches that Jesus Christ will come soon and that before he returns Satan will start a rebellion on Earth. Various natural and man-made disasters will take place and the power of the "Anti-Christ" will emerge; this is the sign that the end of the world is approaching. Ultimately, Jesus Christ will return to win the battle over Satan and to save those who believe in him. Then he will establish a thousand year reign of the new heavens and new earth.
Another view is post-millennialism. This view teaches that with the continuous progress of human society, ultimately humanity will move toward the new millennium. After this, the end of the world will come and Jesus will return to enact the final judgment.
The third view is a-millennialism, a view held by a majority of Christian denominations and orthodox denominations. This view discourages speculation on when the end of the world will come.
Pre-millennialism is popular among some conservative Christians. In China today, particularly among the network of Shouter house churches, there is a tendency to view every instance of oppression as persecution from “the power of the Anti-Christ." This then increases their conviction of and hope for the coming of the end of the world. This is an important part of the teaching promoted by heretical cults in China.
It should be noted also that dispensationalism further develops this pre-millennialist view. This is view is based on the pre-millennialism proposed by Darby, one of the founders of the 19th century Plymouth Brethren movement. He further developed the thinking of the 12th century monk Joachim. Joachim divided the history of mankind into three periods: the first is from creation to the birth of Jesus, known as the "Age of the Law;" the second era is known as the "The Age of the Church," from the suffering of Jesus to the return of Christ; the third era is called, "The Age of the Kingdom," when the returned Christ will rule (this "tripartite theory" of division is what Eastern Lightning uses).
But do those who believe in pre-millennialism and dispensationalism belong to heretical cults? I do not agree with this view. In fact, there are many denominations that are NOT heretical cults that hold to such views, such as the Little Flock and Seventh Day Adventists.
The Shouters and its off-shoots (Lord God Sect, Anointed King, and Eastern Lightning) were all founded by leaders who claimed to be or support someone who claimed to be the "Second Jesus Christ" or the "Female Christ." This is an important mark of distinction between Christian "orthodoxy" and "heresy."
Neither pre-millennialism nor dispensationalism are difficult for Chinese peasants to accept because there are many similar points of contact in the understanding of cataclysm (劫变) from Chinese folk religion. Peasant uprisings in Chinese history have often used folk religion's understanding of cataclysm as a method of mobilization. For example, the White Lotus Society divided the history of mankind into three time periods: Qingyang (青阳), Hongyang (红阳), and Baiyang (白阳).
In the past, folk religions were popular among those on the bottom rungs of society because they desperately hoped that society could change and their situations would improve. The Reform and Opening Policy in China also affected peasants and opened up new ideas to them. Chinese folk religions provided a basis for their understanding of dispensationalist Christianity. Because they are based on characteristics of dispensationalism, it is rather easy to explain the excess of the heretical teachings that have emerged from the Shouters.
Folk Beliefs Prone to Producing Cult Worshipers
What is the relationship between these cults and popular Christianity?
In his book, "Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China," Hanover College history professor Lian Xi (连曦) lists the following Chinese homegrown Christian groups and includes heretical cults within the scope of Chinese folk Christianity: True Jesus Church (真耶稣会), Jesus Family (耶稣家庭), Charismatic Church (灵恩会), Wang Mingdao's independent church, John Sung's Bethel Evangelism Band, Watchman Nee's Little Flock church, as well as the current house church (including off-shoots of Little Flock, such as the Shouters, the Criers, Anointed King, Lord God Sect, Disciple Society, Three Grades of Servants, and Eastern Lightening).
This method of division by denomination/sect is not necessarily wrong, but perhaps is incomplete because he did not include grass-roots believers who belong to Three-Self churches. In fact, many Chinese Christians, especially those in the rural areas are "folk Christians" (民间基督徒), whether they belong to Three-Self or house churches.
Christianity in China has rapidly developed since the Reform and Opening Up policy. Many rural Christians are converts from other religions such as folk religions, Buddhism, and Daoism. Many of these converts appear to have no prior religious faith, but according to Yang Qingkun's pervasive religious theory, in fact they have all been influenced by Confucian, Buddhist, Taoist, and folk religious thinking.
But even though they have changed their religious beliefs, their cultural and social backgrounds have not changed; nor has their attitude toward religion. They still approach Christianity with an attitude based on folk religion or as folk religious believers. Thus, Christianity becomes a substitute for folk religion, or just another folk religion. One of the most obvious manifestations is the utilitarian and practical aspect of folk Christianity. What converts believe in most are Christian miracles. Ordinarily they are most concerned with prayers for safety and health for themselves and their families. Many convert to Christianity because other religious deities were “ineffective.” Such Christians stress the importance of Christ being "spiritually experienced." In fact, to them, Jesus Christ is, in fact, a "basic Bodhisattva" (基菩萨). As long as he can save them from suffering and hardship, and can protect their and their family's safety and health, then they will believe and convert.
China has long been a feudal society and peasants are accustomed to showing obedience. Even today, although there is no longer an emperor, people are still accustomed to obeying authority figures. Folk Christianity also has this characteristic in that the faithful have a special reverence for those "holy people" with "gifts of the Spirit" who pray with a "special spirit." This is particularly true for founders of sects; as long as his signs and wonders are especially “spiritual,” there will be a group of believers to follow him. When these people claim to be the second Jesus Christ the followers do not object. If folk Christians do not improve their understanding of Christianity, they will continue to be susceptible to heretical cults.
Some hold the view that these native cults resembling Christianity all come from the house church. But I do not think that we can conclude from this that the house church is a breeding ground for heretical cults.
Only a small minority of house churches has truly turned into heretical cults. Most house churches are the biggest victims of cults because they are the easiest places from which cults can successfully "steal sheep." In a way, they most want the government to help them fight against cults. If the government can adopt a more flexible policy toward "pure churches" in the house church movement, I believe it will help curb the expanding power of cults as the government fights against Eastern Lighting and other such cults.
For a further look at cults in China, see the spring 2015 issue of ChinaSource Quarterly
Image Credit: Urban Life, Beijing, China by Nick Piggott, on Flickr
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